The five-day war between Georgia and Russia, and the opening week of the Olympic games in Beijing, captured much of the world's and the media's attention in the second week of August 2008. It is not surprising, then, that events in the continuing, low-level - though increasingly dangerous - war in Afghanistan have been relatively under-reported. After all, who wants to read about an asymmetrical war between rural insurgents and advanced military powers that will soon enter its eighth year?
It is a question that will need no answer from the family or colleagues of the British soldier killed by a suicide-bomb on 11 August; or from those of the four workers of the humanitarian group the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who were killed as they drove from Gardez in southwest Afghanistan to Kabul on 13 August (an incident that has led the IRC indefinitely to suspend its operations in the country after twenty yearts of work); or from those of the Afghan civilians who continue to die on a regular basis as a result of bombing-raids by Nato / International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) air-strikes.
But even without the headlines, the conflict in Afghanistan has an impact on many more than the bereaved - and the signs are that this impact is set to intensify as the tactical sophistication of the insurgents increases. A graphic report on 13 August from Kabul by the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent, pointing out that Taliban militias had greatly increased their level of targeting of the supply-lines into Kabul, illustrates how the war is spreading (see Alastair Leithead, "Taleban at Kabul's doorstep", BBC, 13 August 2008). A much-vaunted success of economic regeneration after the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001 was Highway One, the main route into Kabul; but it is now repeatedly the target of the revitalised Taliban insurgents.
The BBC report states that fifty-one trucks have been destroyed in attacks on the highway since mid-July 2008 alone. This is just one indication of a concentration on supply-routes that has been evolving for over a year . Such intensity of focus presents serious problems even to the best-equipped and most technologically advanced armies in the world (see Sami Yousafzai & Ron Moreau, "The Taliban's Baghdad strategy" , 26 July 2008).
From Kabul to the Niger delta
This trend in Afghanistan is paralleled by similar instances of paramilitary targeting of critical economic infrastructure by other groups around the world - as far afield as Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria and India. Their individual and local projects have the ability to cause disruption that has global effects, though they have yet to be registered alongside the discussion of the performance of higher-profile militant groups (see Anton La Guardia, "Al-Qaeda: Winning or losing?", Economist, 17 July 2008).
An earlier column in this series pointed to this emerging cluster, citing also events in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere (see "The asymmetry of economic war", 14 February 2008). In the six moths since it was published, there have been numerous further incidents of this kind. There is, for example, a new emphasis on economic targeting by the resurgent Naxalite rebels in India; such tactics are particularly effective in a rapidly growing economy where the infrastructure is already struggling to keep up with demand and is therefore vulnerable to even small-scale operations (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008).
This was also the experience in Mexico in 2007 where the previously marginal Marxist EPR insurgents staged multiple attacks on oil-and-gas pipelines. The EPR continued these tactics three months ago while rejecting talks with the Mexican government (see Mark Joyce, "Mexican pipeline bombers reject talks", Jane's Intelligence Review, June 2008). Meanwhile, the (Maoist) New People's Army in the Philippines has extended its operations against power lines, telecommunications centres and roads to include mining operations as the Philippines' extractive industries experience rapid investment by foreign companies (see Gavin Greenwood, "Rich Seam", Jane's Intelligence Review, July 2008).
Even such examples of disruption in India, Mexico and the Philippines are small-scale, however, compared to the problems experienced by the Nigerian oil industry. These have evolved over several years, but in 2008 have become much more serious.
The oil-production systems in the Niger delta are broadly grouped into three zones: the operations based on land, those in the swamps and shallow waters of the coastal delta, and deep-water operations that are relatively recent but have become very productive. The on-shore facilities have long been subject to sabotage by a number of local militias resentful at what is seen as the riches of their region being siphoned off to Nigeria's elites. More recently there has been an increase in attacks on the swamp and shallow-water facilities, notwithstanding the difficult terrain that needs to be crossed in reaching them.
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.
The really surprising development in this context was an attack on the deepwater Bonga oilfield on 19 June 2008 by a militia group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend). The Bonga field started production in 2005, was the first of what is expected to be a series of major deepwater facilities, and is already producing a tenth of Nigeria's entire oil output. It is operated by Shell and is 120 kilometres offshore in a location previously regarded as secure (see Neil Ford, "In Deep Water", Jane's Intelligence Review, August 2008).
In the assault, the paramilitaries used a number of rigid inflatable boats to attack a substantial site termed a "floating production, storage and offloading" vessel (FPSO) - a single structure that takes oil direct from the undersea wells and feeds it through to oil tankers. Because an FPSO is self-contained, oil does not have to be piped ashore to sites that would be more directly vulnerable; but in the 19 June attack the Mend militia was able to undertake a 240-kilometre round (and open-sea) journey (see Jeff Vail, "Nigeria - The Significance of the Nigeria Bonga Offshore Oil Platform Attack", The Oil Drum, 24 June 2008). The aim appears to have been to take over the control room of the structure, possibly to extract a large ransom. This failed, but several people were injured and a US oil worker was kidnapped (though later released).
The failure of this attack to achieve its main aim does not diminish its significance, both in terms of the evolving tactics of targeting economic infrastructure, and the specific example of hitting an important part of Nigeria's oil industry at a time of worldwide shortages and rising prices.
The broader battle
It is, again, in Afghanistan itself that this kind of targeting is having a more immediate result. The BBC report cited above described an attack against the major highway close to Kabul; but this follows a marked increase in Taliban attacks on the route into Afghanistan from Karachi across western Pakistan (see Douglas Frantz, "Taleban, Al Qaeda Unchecked in Pakistan", Washington Independent, 14 August 2008). During the early months of 2008, numerous tankers and trucks were hit in repeated attacks close to the border, especially in and near the Khyber pass. The most spectacular was on the night of 23 March, when forty fuel-tankers were destroyed (see Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau & John Barry, "An Assault on Supplies", Newsweek, 7 April 2008).
In the face of these problems, it is possible in principle for United States and other Nato forces to substantially increase patrols on the main routes. This may be a costly diversion from other aspects of their war, but could limit the capacity of militias to disrupt supplies. The problem is that there are indications of Taliban and al-Qaida militias having already thought this through, and planning to move to another area of operations.
One informed estimate suggests that as much as 90% of all of the supplies for Nato's operations in Afghanistan are routed through the Pakistani port city of Karachi; most head for Kabul and some for Kandahar. While some high-value supplies arrive by air, and small quantities come from Russia, Karachi is the key gateway, especially for fuel (see (Syed Saleem Shahzad, "New al-Qaeda focus on NATO supplies", Asia Times, 11 August)
The only realistic alternative would be shipment through Iranian ports such as Chabahar on the Indian Ocean coast. While Chabahar is mainly used by large dhows, it has impressive new facilities as well as a road link through eastern Iran to Afghanistan; but the Iranians have, not surprisingly, refused to consider US requests to use this route.
Karachi is not yet the centre for a major Taliban/al-Qaida operation, but the Asia Times reports that al-Qaida has established cells in the city to begin the process. With its concentrated population and vulnerable and overcrowded road system, Karachi lends itself to supply-route attacks (and especially those using suicide-bombers).
In one sense, this last aspect may be the most important one of all. The technique of targeting critical economic infrastructure is nothing new. "The asymmetry of economic war" gives numerous examples, one of the most effective being the use of economic targeting by the Provisional IRA in Britain in the 1990s. But something almost unprecedented is happening: the combination of economic targeting with suicide-attacks. The escalation in the use of suicide-bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the recognition of the vulnerability of supply-lines, make it more than possible that the two will be combined in operations in Karachi. This could be a new and unanticipated focus in 2008-09, the eighth year of the Afghanistan war.