The next Afghan war

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Paul Rogers
26 January 2006

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has attracted little attention in the western media but much more concern among security analysts. This is particularly true among the British armed forces, especially the army, given that Britain's role in Afghanistan is going to rise sharply in the coming months with the arrival of almost 5,000 fresh troops – a figure announced by defence minister John Reid on 26 January, and a substantially larger number than had been expected.

Paul Rogers's new book (published January 2006) is A War Too Far – Iran, Iraq and the New American Century (Pluto Press)

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Despite some significant recent political developments in Afghanistan, including another round of elections in September 2005, the most notable feature of the country's recent condition is a rise in violence (see "Endless war", 19 January 2006). This has included an increased number of attacks on United States forces involved in their counter-insurgency campaign in the south and east of the country and further attacks on the currently separate Nato force concerned with security and peace enforcement, the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). It has also involved a marked rise in operations against Afghan security forces, especially the police, government facilities and international non-government organisations (see "A new struggle for Afghanistan", 22 December 2005).

Two particular features of this wave of assaults have been the increased prevalence of suicide-bombings and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have some of the characteristics of devices used in Iraq.

The Iraq connection is becoming more and more significant as evidence emerges of young jihadis travelling from Afghanistan to Iraq, getting training and combat involvement with insurgents there, and then returning to Afghanistan bringing their experience and techniques with them. This is an extraordinary reversal of Afghanistan's role in jihadist training in the 1980s against the Soviets and the 1990s against the Northern Alliance.

War in its fifth year

These trends in Afghanistan need to be seen in the more general context of the nature of a war that is now well into its fifth year. In November 2001, it seemed clear that the Taliban regime had been comprehensively terminated – a result achieved by the United States using large-scale airpower, special forces and, above all, by their rearming the Northern Alliance to tip the balance heavily against the Taliban within the civil war.

The regime certainly was eliminated but in most parts of Afghanistan the Taliban were not so much defeated as able to melt away with units and arms intact. The most notable indication of this was John Simpson's single-handed "relief" of Kabul (with the aid of a BBC camera crew) in the second week of November following the overnight disappearance from the city of Taliban militia. Early in 2002 there was a sudden burst of conflict, including violent action in the Tora Bora area; by the following summer, this was to be succeeded by more of a low-level if persistent insurgency, particularly towards the Pakistan border.

In 2003, there was more insurgent activity, again during the summer months. The pattern was repeated in 2004, when there were also increased numbers of attacks on aid-agency personnel and foreign contractors. One effect of the growing insecurity was to make it necessary for the United States to maintain troop numbers at much higher levels than anticipated; few in the Pentagon had expected Afghanistan to be "troublesome" in this way.

By early 2005 there were about 20,000 foreign troops involved in counter-insurgency operations in the country. The great majority of these were American, with perhaps a couple of thousand from other countries, including Britain and Australia. In a little-noticed move, Britain's ministry of defence added a flight of six Harrier strike aircraft to the US air forces to be used in support of US air action against insurgents.

A year on, the US still has around 19,000 troops in the country, mostly combat troops but with longer-term deployments at the air bases at Bagram and Kandahar. Around 3,500 of the combat troops are due to be withdrawn in the coming months; their responsibilities will be taken over by Nato forces, including the 5,000 new troops arriving from Britain.

A spring offensive

This prospective deployment of British troops raises two issues that are potentially difficult for the Tony Blair government. The first is that the United States has put heavy pressure on Nato to replace US troops by increasing its commitment of forces and changing the nature of Isaf from peacekeeping towards counter-insurgency. As this force moves into areas where US combat operations are launched, a degree of "mission creep" is expected – one of the reasons the Dutch have been so reluctant to get involved. Such an unsubtle change of role could well mean, among other problems, a sharp increase in casualties among British personnel.

The second issue is probably more serious. The partial US withdrawal from Afghanistan is coinciding with a marked increase in the intensity of the insurgency, much of which is connected to developments in Pakistan. There is now abundant evidence that the Pakistani army has even less control over the provinces bordering Afghanistan than the minimal impact it could claim a year or so ago, to the extent that Taliban elements and al-Qaida associates can travel freely and act with impunity (see Carlotta Gall & Mohammad Kahn, "Pakistan's Push on Border Area is Said to Falter", New York Times, 22 January 2006).

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)

A forceful American response has been to increase air strikes mounted across the border into Pakistan, a tactic that may have the tacit agreement of President Musharraf but is deeply unpopular in much of his country – especially when it kills civilians. The US would prefer to have a free hand to conduct such raids whenever it wishes, but this may become so controversial in Pakistan as to become impossible (see Griff Witte & Kamran Khan, "Attacks Strain Efforts on Terror", Washington Post, 23 January 2006).

What this means is that Taliban, al-Qaida and other militia groups are growing in confidence and are increasingly able to criss-cross the border with ease. This, combined with new tactics that may well have been learnt in Iraq, is enhancing an insurgency that never went away but is now being sustained at levels that match or exceed any since the fall of the Taliban.

The significance of the current period in Afghanistan lies in the fact that this is the first winter for four years that insurgent actions have been maintained through the coldest months. The implication is that there is likely to be a marked upsurge in violence from April 2006 onwards. This is likely to coincide more or less exactly with the arrival of the new British troops. The political implications of British involvement in Afghanistan are currently overshadowed by the problems in Iraq – but that may not be the case for much longer.

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