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Al-Qaida’s new terrain

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 September 2006

On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush once again conflated the war in Iraq into the global war on terror, declaring that victory in Iraq was essential to the safety of America: "Today we are safer but we are not yet safe".

On the same day, Osama bin Laden's deputy and strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared that al-Qaida would open up new fronts in the Gulf and against Israel, warning the United States not to waste its time in Iraq and Afghanistan where it was facing defeat.

When the rhetoric from both speeches is stripped away, it was evident that President Bush was determined to highlight the dangers of al-Qaida in the run-up to the midterm elections to Congress in November 2006, and al-Zawahiri was equally determined not to allow al-Qaida to be sidelined by Hizbollah's war with Israel in southern Lebanon. His claim of imminent American defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan might be greatly exaggerated, yet many recent developments suggest that it contains elements of reality.

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

Afghanistan in turmoil

Earlier columns in this series have pointed to the renewed campaign by Taliban and other militias in Afghanistan, predicting a further upsurge in violence during the course of the year (see "Afghanistan's endemic war", 25 May 2006, and "Afghanistan's war season", 22 June 2006). What appeared to be a pessimistic analysis then has since proved, if anything, to be an underestimate of the power of the revitalised Taliban, leading Tony Blair and others to make urgent appeals for 2,500 additional Nato troops as reinforcements for the hard-pressed forces now in the country.

It is worth remembering that there are already 36,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. 19,000 Americans are supported by special forces from Britain, France and several other countries in their long-lasting counter-insurgency campaign in the east of the country, and 17,000 NATO troops of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) are elsewhere in the country, including large contingents in the south.

The problems for the British troops working as part of Isaf in Helmand province have been particularly severe as an intended "hearts and minds" reconstruction mission has turned into a violent counterinsurgency operation. This has now moved on to the point where isolated British garrisons face near-constant attacks and may well have to be withdrawn to secure bases.

Far from providing an environment for reconstruction and development, the British, Canadian, Dutch and other forces are forced repeatedly to call in air power to counter the determined and repeated assaults, not from small groups of paramilitaries but frequently from formations more than a hundred strong. As a graphic account from one British soldier puts it

"We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, either locally or from across the border. We have used B1 bombers, Harriers, F-16s and Mirage 2000s. We have dropped 500lb, 1,000lb and even 2,000lb bombs. At one point our Apaches [helicopter gunships] ran out of missiles they have fired so many. Almost any movement on the ground gets ambushed. We need an entire battlegroup to move things. Yet they will not give us the helicopters we have been asking for" (see Kim Sengupta, "Soldiers reveal horror of Afghan campaign", Independent, 13 September 2006.

As the British forces urgently seek more equipment, their Canadian counterparts are also trying to reinforce their troops as they face increasing attacks on their convoys. The Canadian forces are trying to lease more Chinook helicopters from the United States and are planning to buy at least a hundred heavily armoured trucks costing $1.3 million each (see David Pugliese, "Canada To Buy Heavy Trucks, Seeks Chinooks for Afghanistan", Defense News, 4 September 2006 [subscription only])

The rapidly increasing levels of insecurity in Afghanistan had earlier been covered only in specialist defence journals (and in these openDemocracy columns) until August 2006, but the number of casualties among the Isaf units has changed that, and the issue has now broken through into the establishment media. Even as that has happened, though, two other significant developments have received far more limited coverage.

The first is the decision of the Pakistani government to negotiate an agreement with paramilitary groups in North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. This supposedly involves the paramilitaries refraining from going into Afghanistan or supporting Taliban and other groups, but there is little indication that this stance will be maintained. Meanwhile the Pakistani army is dismantling checkpoints and releasing detainees, the indications being that the district will become even more of a refuge, training centre and support base for militias operating across the border (see Ahmed Rashid, "Losing the War on Terror", Washington Post, 11 September 2006)

The second development is a report from a usually reliable source that Osama bin Laden himself has now recovered from his serious kidney problems and is in sufficiently good health to take to the road again, possibly travelling from South Waziristan into some eastern Afghan provinces (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Osama's on the move again" Asia Times, 13 September 2006). While bin Laden is much more of a figurehead than a leader in the military sense, the very fact that he seems to have emerged from an obscurity that has lasted two years is likely give a boost to the wider al-Qaida movement.

Iraq out of control

As security worsens in Afghanistan, Iraq has experienced an increase in violence on an even more substantial scale. In one day alone (13 September), nearly 100 people were killed around Baghdad alone, including sixty-two people found dead, all showing signs of torture, and seventeen police killed in a series of bomb attacks (see Amit R Paley & KI Ibrahim, "Nearly 100 Killed In Baghdad Over 24 Brutal Hours", Washington Post, 14 September 2006)

In response to the increased violence in Baghdad towards the end of August, United States troops were moved from other parts of Iraq to bolster security in the city. This has exacerbated a loss of control by US forces that stretches right across Anbar province, which covers a large swathe of land right up to the Syria border and includes major centres of resistance such as Fallujah and Ramadi. An unusually frank assessment by a senior US marine-corps intelligence officer, Colonel Pete Devlin, reveals the problems the US military is facing in Anbar (see Thomas E Ricks, "Situation Called Dire in West Iraq", Washington Post, 11 September 2006).

Devlin's report was dated 16 August, just as the violence was escalating in Baghdad, but actually covered the province that lies to the west and north-west of the city. It describes a vacuum in which governmental institutions do not function and the writ of US forces hardly extends beyond their permanent bases. Instead, insurgent groups, including those linked with al-Qaida, have developed local power bases that effectively replace external authority.

The key point here is that Anbar province encompasses those major centres of the insurgency that have been subject to intense military action by US forces since the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime three and a half years ago. A sustained policy of "clear and hold" has been applied, based on a process of clearing a city, town or district of insurgents and then holding it with a combination of US and Iraqi security forces.

Fallujah, in particular, was the site of a major marine-corps action right back in April 2004, and this was repeated on a much larger scale in November of that year when a joint US army/marine corps force took over the entire city in the largest single action since April 2003; this killed around 5,000 people and destroying three-quarters of the city's infrastructure.

At the time, the Bush administration expressed a solid conviction that Fallujah was the most important centre of the whole Iraqi insurgency, but insurgents took control of much of the city of Mosul even as the US operation in Fallujah was still underway. Moreover, within months of the November 2004 operation, and despite a secured perimeter and well-armed roadblocks, insurgents were proving able to manufacture car-bombs within the city. Elsewhere in the province, including the city of Ramadi, attempts to control the insurgency were failing.

The problems in Anbar province actually go well beyond insecurity in particular cities because Colonel Devlin's report implies that the province has essentially been "lost" from US control. This throws into question the whole "clear and hold" policy that has underpinned the US military approach to winning the war in Iraq. There have been occasional reports that CIA assessments of the situation in Iraq have been negative in recent months, but US military intelligence reports have tended to be more positive. Devlin's is clearly an exception, and appears to be much more in line with the CIA.

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

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

The al-Qaida movement is both amorphous and mutating but one of its key features is the time scale in which it operates - decades not years (see "The war on terror: past, present, future", 25 August 2006). In doing so, it is looking to future generations of support, and some analysts have pointed to the way in which parts of Iraq have taken on the role of a combat training zone for the jihadis of the future. The actual situation may be more complex, and there may often be conflicts between foreign paramilitaries and Iraqi nationals (see Michael Knights & Brooke Neumann, "A New Afghanistan? Exploring the Iraqi jihadist training ground", Jane's Intelligence Review, July 2006). Even so, there is abundant evidence that Iraq is serving this long-term function.

What is really significant, though, is that it is not now alone in this. Parts of western Pakistan, especially North Waziristan, make up a region that (as Ahmed Rashid says) "is now a fully operational al-Qaeda base area offering a wide range of services, facilities, and military and explosives training for extremists around the world planning attacks. Waziristan is now a regional magnet." Furthermore, as Taliban units take control of much of southern Afghanistan, so that country begins to revert to the training function it served in the 1980s against the Soviets and the 1990s against the Northern Alliance.

Uncomfortable though it may be to western analysts, al-Zawahiri may be closer to telling the truth about this situation than President Bush. The first phase of George W Bush's war on terror is essentially about taking control in Afghanistan and Iraq while destroying the al-Qaida movement. The second phase will then be about regime change in Pyongyang and Tehran and the creation of a pro-American "greater middle east" that will secure Gulf oil supplies for decades. As of now, he is losing, not winning, that first phase.

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