Taliban propaganda photo showing new graduates from a terrorist training camp March 31, 2018 in Farah Province, Afghanistan. Ho/Zuma Press/Press Association. All rights reserved.The fourth column in this series, published seventeen years ago this week, reported on the start of the United States's war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. A month after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, the start of that war was marked by B-2 strategic bombers mounting raids from the US airbase on the British-controlled atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (see “From Afghanistan to Iraq”, 15 October 2001).
In what proved to be a ten-week campaign, the US airforce and navy engaged in intensive bombing while special forces and the CIA worked to supply, pay and otherwise encourage forces inside Afghanistan – mainly under the command of Northern Alliance warlords – to act, in effect, as US ground troops.
The column’s title was a nod to the mood within the George W Bush administration, then just ten months old. In the wake of 9/11, its neo-conservative leading figures such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were already looking beyond Afghanistan to what would be a much larger operation: terminating the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
The rapid dismantling of the Taliban regime in Kabul, and the dispersal both of Taliban fighters from the capital and al-Qaida operatives from their own redoubts, reinforced this outlook. A remarkable result was that only a few months after 9/11, the campaign in Afghanistan was seen as secondary. Indeed, its sidelining was visible even in those early assaults, leading that mid-October column to conclude: “While all the attention is being paid to the conflict in Afghanistan, it is worth watching Iraq.”
That proved correct, as the long build-up to the invasion of Iraq started, before finally being launched in March 2003. Moreover, the diversion from the conflict in Afghanistan also helped prolong it, as the Taliban regrouped and the US-led coalition faced accumulating problems. Today, the war has entered its eighteenth year with no end in sight.
A fatal choice
The extent of continuing violence in Afghanistan today is given little detailed coverage in most western countries, in part because only a handful of media outlets still maintain bureaux in the country. To fill the gap, small specialist groups and NGOs such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) – through its Shadow Wars programme – do their best to collate information and analyse what is happening.
An innovative example was the BIJ's chronicle of a single day's violence in Afghanistan, which was given wide circulation via its coverage in the weekly Observer. On the day chosen, 30 June 2018, thirty distinct attacks occurred: involving Taliban, ISIS, the Afghan national army (ANA) and police, plus United States soldiers, aircraft and drones. Those incidents were spread over sixteen provinces, nearly half of the country; they took at least sixty lives, and injured many more people. Airstrikes and improvised explosive devices [IEDs] inflicted the most damage.
Seventeen years ago, very few analysts or commentators thought the war might last so long. Yet the signs were there from the start, as were indications that the conflict would not be restricted to Afghanistan. Here too, that October 2001 column was uncomfortably prescient, suggesting: “The al-Qaida network is being more successful than expected in portraying the war as ’the west versus Islam’.”
Al-Qaida's success in defining the war on its own terms led to many attacks on what it called the “far enemy”. In 2002 alone, for example, the targets included church worshippers in the diplomatic district of Islamabad; French naval technicians in Karachi; German tourists in southern Tunisia; the US consulate in Karachi; the oil-tanker MV Limburg off Yemen; an Israeli hotel in Kenya; and the Sari nightclub in Bali, where 202 people, many of them Australian tourists, were killed. And this list is very far from complete.
The following years saw many more such incidents. An even more compressed list of targets might mention, from 2003, western buildings in Casablanca and Riyadh, the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, historic synagogues and the British consulate in Istanbul; from 2004, the Taba Hilton in Sinai, the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Madrid's Atocha station, the Taba Hilton in Sinai; and from 2005, tourist venues in Sinai, Bali and Amman, as well as the 7/7 attacks on London's transport nodes. Several of these planned assaults – in Sharm al-Sheikh, Bali, and Madrid's 3-11, for example – inflicted mass casualties.
The pace of such attacks slowed in the decade's second half, which was dominated (as was media coverage) by the violence in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the west's abject neglect of post-conflict stabilisation and peacebuilding enabled the Taliban to regain control of many rural areas. That led in turn to a re-escalation: from 2006, western troops there expanded to over 100,000, peaking at 140,000 by the end of 2010. Their convoluted strategic role turned from attempting to defeat the Taliban into forcing the movement into a position of weakness from which it would be obliged to negotiate a peace deal.
That too failed, and most western troops left in stages. But these were bolstered again in 2017-18, with even greater emphasis on special forces, combined with intensive use of airstrikes and armed drones. That adoption of "remote-control" warfare – a move away from tens of thousands of "boots on the ground", though still an intensive commitment – was already seen during Barack Obama's two terms. But it is now combined with the Pentagon's sober recognition (if not the Trump White House's) that the Taliban cannot be defeated and compromise will be essential for an uneasy peace to prevail.
A continued struggle
Such an outcome is just feasible in the current environment, but the much wider question is whether the more general phenomenon of Islamist-leaning paramilitary violence is in decline. ISIS as a defined caliphate does now seem to be a thing of the past, but it will retain a powerful symbolism in showing what can be achieved against overwhelming “crusader” forces. In this respect, the spate of attacks across western Europe in the past two years resonate unhappily with the experience of 2002-07.
ISIS and its diverse affiliates – together with offshoots of the original al-Qaida – are active across north Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and down the coast to northern Mozambique, south Asia and southeast Asia. Some commentators see Libya, as a weak and failing state, as an obvious location for paramilitary consolidation, but the level of repression in Egypt makes the Arab world's most populous state also a tempting place for recruitment.
More broadly, it helps to stand back from current developments and recall that 2001 assessment: namely, that military assaults on extreme Islamist paramilitary movements can backfire. For it enables these groups to amplify their message – through the increasing means at their disposal – that the west is the real aggressor. In the al-Qaida, ISIS and wider armed jihadi mindset, opposing the west is a decades-long struggle that transcends mere earthly endeavours. Against that timescale, Donald Trump will be gone in little more than the blink of an eye, the struggle long to outlast him.