The Afghan tunnel

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 August 2007

President Bush delivered a speech to United States military veterans on 22 August 2007 that invoked the war in Vietnam to support the case that an early exit of US forces from Iraq is unthinkable. This declaration of long-term commitment anticipates - and may possibly influence - the conclusion of General David Petraeus's report on the progress of the US's "surge" strategy (due to be presented in September); it also confirms the conclusion of several columns in this series that whatever its difficulties and setbacks, withdrawal from Iraq is not an option for the United States.

The Vietnam war analogy is, given the humiliating end to that conflict for the US, a delicate one for the president to employ. It is also misleading, in that the country has for almost six years been involved in another costly military effort that - in combination with Iraq - cannot easily be accommodated by a Vietnam-style narrative. The predicament of the US (and its coalition allies) in Afghanistan is less high-profile than that in Iraq (and received only four glancing references in the George W Bush's speech), but it is just as important for the future of what the president evidently still sees as its "long war".

The Afghan conflict continues to inflict military and civilian casualties alike, and across the border in Pakistan the fallout of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege of 3-11 July 2007 is exacting a heavy toll (see "Pakistan's peril", 19 July 2007)

In Pakistan itself, a paramilitary attack on an army checkpoint near Bannu in North West Frontier Province on 21 August 2007 killed three soldiers, part of an escalating series of attacks since the bloody end to the Lal Masjid events in Islamabad; the death-toll is now around 200.

In Afghanistan, a suicide-bomb attack on the convoy of Arsala Jamal, the governor of Khost province on 22 August killed two bodyguards and wounded ten more. Arsala Jamal himself survived, as he has survived three similar attempts on his life (an increasingly common Taliban tactic which draws on the experience of insurgents in Iraq). Two further suicide-operations in Kandahar on 17-18 August killed about twenty people.

The level of Taliban activity in Afghanistan means that no early reduction in the number of coalition forces is foreseeable; indeed, British commanders and their political masters (such as David Miliband, the new foreign secretary) have talked of a "sustained" long-term military-political effort in Afghanistan - even one that can be expected to last for "decades". The total Nato commitment is at present around 40,000 troops (the United States alone has 23,500 troops in the country, though not all operate under Nato command).

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 2001This long-term commitment notwithstanding, the anti-Taliban effort is now facing severe difficulties in three areas: refugee return, civilian deaths, and drugs.

A region of risk

First, many thousands of refugees have returned to Afghanistan in recent months, partly because of decisions by both the Iranian and Pakistani governments to make life harder for them; Pakistan, for example, has closed some camps that had been home to many Afghans for up to twenty years (see Alastair Leithead, "Afghan refugees flood back home", BBC News, 19 August 2007). Now, the UN is very concerned about the difficulties the Afghan authorities face in coping with the influx (which include the fact that a large proportion of the returnees are reluctant to come "home"). In addition, the UN envoy, Walter Kaelin - while condemning the Taliban for "systematically breaking international humanitarian laws" (see "More Afghans to ‘flee' conflict", BBC News, 21 August 2007) - has warned that current levels of violence are leading to further displacements of people within Afghanistan, especially from the south and east of the country.

The second difficulty is the inhumane and counterproductive effect of coalition military action. Even political and military representatives of the combatants in the anti-Taliban struggle are beginning to acknowledge the scale of civilian deaths due to coalition airstrikes, whose effect is disastrous both in humanitarian terms and in alienating the Afghan people affected. The government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul has long expressed anger at this "carelessness"; now even the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, has acknowledged that more than 300 Afghan civilians were killed in coalition airstrikes in July 2007 alone.

The third difficulty is that Helmand province in Afghanistan - which presents a major military challenge to the British troops charged with subduing the insurgency there - is now the world's major source of heroin. Poppy cultivation in the province increased rapidly in 2005-06 and is expected to rise still further in 2007, an expansion that offsets efforts to curb the supply elsewhere (especially southeast Asia).

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that both the supply and demand for illicit drugs are broadly stable on a worldwide level, such that the drug epidemic widely expected and feared in the early 2000s has not materialised (see UNODC World Drug Report 2007, 26 June 2007). In relation to this positive trend, Afghanistan has emerged as the one country which the global drugs trade can view as a success.

The executive director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, says: "Helmand province, severely threatened by insurgency, is becoming the world's biggest drug supplier, with illicit cultivation larger than the rest of the country put together and even than entire nations such as Myanmar or Colombia".

Some British military contingents have sought to engage with local leaders in Helmand in the effort to reverse this dynamic, but the endemic insecurity in the region works against both a reduction in the poppy crop and the creation of a space for the Afghan government to establish any central administration or authority.

A search for light

This combination of problems was part of the impulse behind the three-day Kabul gathering on 11-13 August, involving local leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan in a search for agreement on how to curb Taliban and al-Qaida activity on either side of the border. A reliable source suggests that evidence of the success of this "peace jirga" will be followed by US or Pakistani attacks on Taliban or al-Qaida centres in western Pakistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban a step ahead of US assault", Asia Times, 13 August 2007). 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 latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

The drawback of any such post-jirga military strategy is that the numerous camps operated by the different militant groups have very largely dispersed, making concentrated military attacks futile. In any case, the main focus of Taliban activity is likely to be shifting from Helmand and Kandahar provinces towards Khost and Gardez (the attempt to kill Arsala Jamal is an indication of this). Nonetheless, the frustration of United States planners in particular with the progress of the war is likely to mean that they will sanction direct military action against targets in Pakistan. The possibility that such attacks will have further "blowback" effects for the US - even more civilian casualties, a further rise in anti-Americanism, the weakening of Pervez Musharraf's regime - cannot be discounted.

Such recourse to heavy military force has been a hallmark of the "war on terror" since its launch after 11 September 2001. At the same time, there are incipient signs that some in the US government - primarily from the state department rather than the Pentagon - are seeking to explore another approach (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban, US in new round of peace talks", Asia Times, 20 August 2007).

The US assistant secretary of state, Richard Boucher, visited Pakistan on 15-16 August 2007 and deputy secretary John Negroponte (a veteran of central America in the 1980s as well as, more recently, Iraq) is due there on 10-12 September. This activity is reported to be part of a series of discussions involving Pakistani, American and Taliban participants that have the remarkable aim of trying to curb the violence in Afghanistan while offering Taliban leaders a share of political power in some Afghan provinces - and ultimately a role in the Afghan government (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Talks with the Taliban gain ground", Asia Times, 23 August 2007).

It is by no means clear that such tentative discussions have any prospect of success and it is likely that some elements of the Taliban leadership - emboldened by their recent successes - would prefer to continue their armed campaign (see Aziz Ahmad Tassal, "A kindler, gentler Taleban?", IWPR, 21 August 2007). What is significant, though, is that a branch of the US government should entertain the idea of negotiating with the Taliban.

The movement, after all, hosted the al-Qaida movement that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks; to engage in any kind of discussion with them might appear to represent a major change within the Bush administration, even an extraordinary retreat from the absolutism of these six years. More likely, it means that a degree of sense is starting to prevail within the more thoughtful corridors of the state department. If the initiative fails it can be disowned by the White House, but if it achieves even limited progress then it can be artfully "spun" as an example of coalition military prowess forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

On past performance, the vigorous military tactics so widely used by the Pentagon and championed by the ideologists of a military solution to post-9/11 conflicts are much more likely to prevail. But there is just a chance that this non-military alternative might be able to show results. If it does, then this might be the first sign of a major rethink in the conduct of the "war on terror".

The stakes are high. George W Bush's references to Vietnam and the need to keep fighting in Iraq offer one way ahead for the United States and the world. Against this prognosis, there is a slender reed of possibility that current developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan will determine whether American forces are still mired in Afghanistan as the presidential election of 2016 approaches.

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