The thirty-year war, revisited

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 August 2008

What is the most realistic description of the conflict the United States launched after the attacks of 11 September 2001? As the seventh anniversary of this founding event approaches, and with no end to the conflict in sight, leading analysts are seeking to consign the formerly potent notions of the "war on terror" (or its sobering successor the "long war") to early retirement. Some offer in their place a focus on "counter-terrorism", implying opposition to the idea that a "battlefield solution" to the military campaign is possible. A new report by the RAND Corporation, for example, concludes that "the U.S. approach to countering al Qa'ida has focused far too much on the use of military force. Instead, policing and intelligence should be the backbone of U.S. efforts" (see Seth G Jones & Martin C Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida, RAND Corporation, July 2008).

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

This linguistic and intellectual shift might in principle be a small sign of an encouraging willingness to review the policy reactions and choices that have brought the United States and the world to this point - and to look for a better way. The problem, however, is twofold. First, the logic of the military definition of the conflict - and all the exercise of power and control that it implies - is so deeply rooted that it would take an immense effort of argument and will to reverse it (see "A world beyond control", 22 May 2008).

Second, the current evidence on the ground in the two areas where US forces are engaged in large-scale operations - Iraq and Afghanistan - is cited by many subscribers to this logic as supporting the need to intensify, not reverse, the search for military solutions. The result is a double-bind: to extend even further the likely timespan of war, and to ensure that it remains even in its own terms unwinnable.

The near horizon

The case for progress in the two main theatres of war does not seem a harmful illusion to those who continue to make it. The latest statistic welcomed in support of it is that the United States's military death-toll in Iraq in July 2008 is on course to be the lowest since the war began in March 2003. The five American soldiers killed in combat in Iraq as of 31 July - a decline from May's total of fifteen and June's of twenty-three - is greeted by politicians, military strategists and (especially conservative) commentators hungry to find confirmation of the prevailing narrative of 2008: that the military "surge" strategy promoted by the George W Bush administration in early 2007 has been vindicated (see Dylan Matthews & Ezra Klein, "How important was the surge?", American Prospect, 28 July 2008).

The Pentagon is even hoping to begin a modest withdrawal of forces from the country in the autumn, enabling it to move more troops into Afghanistan during the winter. The prospect that this trend of events ostensibly holds out is that victory in the administration's still-championed "war on terror" is now more or less assured - with a return to security and stability in Iraq making available the forces at last to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This anyway is the impression being given by those analysts in the United States who still cleave to the notion that this is the kind of conflict where "victory" in the classic sense of a vanquishing of a military enemy is possible. The surge's success in its aim of transforming "the conflict over power in Iraq from a military to a political struggle" is in this view a key index of current progress (see Kimberly Kagan, "The Future of Iraq: the decline of violence, the rise of politics", Weekly Standard, 28 July 2008).

The military knot

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 pattern of incidents in the first half of 2008 suggested that the violence across most of Iraq was indeed abating, raising hopes of a definite turning of the page towards peace and security. Iraqi army units were also taking a larger role in operations, albeit they were still dependent on US air power, logistics and combat-support. This makes the sudden and unexpected escalation of violence represented by the bombings and subsequent violence in Baghdad and Kirkuk on 27 July 2008 all the more shattering.

The attacks on Shi'a pilgrims and Kurdish protestors respectively killed at least fifty-five people and wounded about 240; they were almost certainly perpetrated by Sunni militants and seem designed (as was the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006 which opened the most ferociously sectarian phase of the war) to incite a vigorous counter-reaction from Shi'a militias (see "Iraq's burning season", 23 February 2006).

This is also a departure from the previous period of intense violence, the conflict between the Iraqi army and the (Shi'a) Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra and Baghdad in April 2008. The combination shows how much potential for new outbreaks remain, and now narrow and fragile is the true margin of confidence that Iraq is moving beyond war (see Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, Faber, 2008).

The Baghdad and Kirkuk assaults have been followed by others, for example a suicide-bomb attack in Qayara (south of Mosul) on 31 July that killed three policemen and wounded four others - the fifth suicide-bomb in Iraq in as many days. These operations are a reminder that the most extreme elements of the Sunni paramilitary groups have not been brought under control. They also display the potential for a new and broader upsurge of violence, especially if some US forces are reassigned to Afghanistan (see Jennifer Koons, "Al-Qaeda in Iraq Down - But Not Out", Institute of War & Peace Reporting [IWPR], Iraqi Crisis Report 266, 25 July 2008). Even if these attacks do not provoke large-scale reprisals, they will still provide US negotiators with strong arguments to seek to persuade the Nouri al-Maliki government - against his expressed wish - that the United States must have an extended military presence in the country.

The Bush administration intended to complete negotiations on a long-term force agreement by now, but the al-Maliki government has been far stronger in its negotiating stance than had been expected, leading just to some short-term proposals with almost everything else on hold (see Gareth Porter, "'Pushover' Maliki stands his ground", Asia Times, 30 July 2008).

These problems do not in anyway diminish the determination of the US military to plan for a sustained involvement in Iraq (see "Iraq: a far horizon", 25 October 2007). Two recent developments confirm this: the US army's proposal to build new power-plants costing $184 million at five main bases in Iraq, and the US air-force training programme for long-term support of US troops on the ground.

If and when US troop numbers do decrease, their function is meant to change from a mixture of direct combat operations and the training of Iraqi forces to just the latter role. Yet the Iraqi forces cannot provide logistical support, they do not undertake aerial intelligence gathering and they have no capacity for close air support of combat troops. (Thom Shanker, "Air Force Plans Altered Role in Iraq", New York Times, 29 July 2008).

US forces will be embedded with Iraqi army units, but should they come under attack there will not be US ground forces to provide reinforcement. The air force thus expects to play a more direct role at this point - even though this is likely to mean close air-support operations in urban areas, with all the risks of civilian casualties that these entail.

The tightened grip

This probable development in Iraq comes at a time of increased US air operations in Afghanistan that as ever is accompanied by civilian casualties (see David Wood, "Afghan Air War Grows in Intensity", Baltimore Sun, 28 July). The intensity of the air war is one indication of the deterioration in security across southern and southeastern Afghanistan; in the week of 21-27 July 2008 there was an average of sixty-eight air-strikes each day, compared with thirty-five a year ago. This increased activity has entailed controversial incidents involving civilian deaths; US and Nato officials are currently investigating three incidents of such suspected "collateral damage" between 4 July and 20 July 2008 in which seventy-eight civilians were killed (see Candace Rondeaux, "Civilian Airstrike Deaths Probed", Washington Post, 25 July).

US army and air-force plans for operations in Iraq each imply that Washington intends to establish a near-permanent presence that will remain almost independent of the wishes of any future administration; most analysts believe that even if the violence does continue to decline, the Pentagon envisages a total US military presence of around 50,000 for many years to come, backed up by many thousands more across the border in Kuwait as well as other forces in Qatar and Oman (see "The Iraq project", 30 January 2008).

In itself this forward planning is hardly a surprise, given the long-term strategic significance of the region - and especially its oil reserves - to the United States. The country's need and vulnerability in this regard are highlighted by the steep oil-price rises and the intense competition for resources at a time of breakneck economic development. But a determined focus by Washington on the pursuit of its own perceived interests in Iraq - especially in the context of its close relationship with Israel - will also create further antagonism to the American presence in Iraq and the wider region.

The additional worry that an entrenched commitment to Iraq would raise is whether a lengthy occupation of Iraq will be paralleled by a drawn-out war in Afghanistan. All the signs of the June-July 2008 period are that Taliban and al-Qaida paramilitaries on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border are growing in strength (see "Haqqani emerging as new leader of a resurgent Taliban", Times of India, 31 July 2008). Al-Qaida itself is reportedly reconfiguring its energies from Iraq to Afghanistan - in effect back to its home base, except this time the key areas will be on both sides of the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border (see Robert Burns, "Al Qaeda Shifting Focus from Iraq", Washington Times, 20 July 2008).

The loose affiliation of networks is also proving successful in recruiting many new potential paramilitaries - from Turkey, central Asia and across the middle east (see Kathy Gannon, "Al-Qaeda Recruiting Scores of New Jihadis", Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 July 2008). Most of them are entering Pakistan and are receiving their training there rather than (as with an earlier generation of militants) in Afghanistan. Such is the control that the Pakistani Taliban groups have in the border areas that camps are now operating just a few miles from the regional capital, Peshawar (see Zahid Hussain, "In Pakistan Mountains, Jihadis train for War", Wall Street Journal, 28 July 2008).

Indeed, Peshawar itself is now surrounded on three sides by territory controlled be Taliban militias. Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and its main military city, Rawalpindi, are only ninety minutes' drive down the eastern highway on the fourth side (see Jackie Northam, "Taliban Tightens Grip Near Northern Pakistan Border", National Public Radio, 25 July 2008).

The far horizon

For the Pentagon, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and related problems in western Pakistan demand a substantial military expansion: in effect, a new phase in the overall war. This will be heralded by an additional US combat brigade of 3,500 troops in autumn 2008, but it could yet involve many thousands more troops over the next year. It also comes at a time when US intelligence agencies are becoming more questioning of the loyalties of their putative allies in Pakistan (see "CIA cites Pakistan spy agency's ties to militants", International Herald Tribune, 30 July 2008).

A greater western presence in Afghanistan, and / or an increase in US action in Pakistan, could - according to some experienced Pakistani civil servants as well as many independent analysts in the region - be deeply counterproductive, in that these measures are likely to produce a strong reaction against what is already widely seen as a foreign occupation (see Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Penguin, 2008). But in political terms the momentum is towards such escalation: there is, for example, bipartisan support in the United States for an expanded military commitment in the region, with both Barack Obama and John McCain seeing this as an essential part of the US's response to current pressures.

The war in Afghanistan started in October 2001, achieved the overthrow of the the Taliban regime in November and was assumed to have been won by January 2002. By that time, an extension of the war to Iraq was becoming foreseeable. In three months' time, the combatants will enter the eighth year of a conflict that has already lasted far longer than the full span of the second world war (see "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008).

The likelihood is that in 2008-09 the conflict will intensify as it extends to western Pakistan. This, alongside other developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggests a different perspective on its overall timeframe: that this is a war still in its early stages, and that it will continue irrespective of whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 (see Anthony Cordesman, "The presidential campaign, the Iraq and Afghan-Pakistan wars, and the coming year of uncertainty", CSIS, 21 May 2008).

Indeed, predictions of a thirty-year war made at the time of the initial occupation of Iraq - which may then have seemed outlandish, given the euphoria at the apparent success of the short-sharp invasion - remain all too plausible (see "A thirty-year war" [4 April 2003] and "Permanent occupation?" [24 April 2003]). Whatever the answer to the question about the most realistic description of the conflict launched after 9/11, this conflict may indeed - unless there is a decisive shift towards a different security paradigm - be measured in decades not years.

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