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The new frontline

Sunday 21 September 2008, by Paul Rogers

Washington’s military strategy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is expanding its range of enemies.

By the end of August 2008 it was clear that Afghanistan was becoming the principal focus of the George W Bush administration’s war on terror. Iraq was believed to be making a transition to some sort of peace after more than five years of war; but as the violence there at last showed some signs of diminishing, so the problems in Afghanistan were escalating.

Moreover, insurgent attacks continue on a daily basis. For example, the governor of Logar province was assassinated on 13 September in an explosion near his home outside Kabul.

To add to the country’s problems, food shortages affecting 9 million people are likely during the coming winter (see Carlotta Gall, "9 million Afghans facing acute food shortages soon", International Herald Tribune, 18 September 2008). A combination of harsh weather in winter 2007-08, a subsequent drought, deteriorating security and world food-price increases guarantee that much of central and northern Afghanistan will be deeply affected (see "Afghan Weekly Expects Further Food Price Hikes", RedOrbit, 14 September 2008)

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the situation in Iraq is far less peaceful than many around the Bush administration have claimed. A rash of suicide- bomb attacks, a resurgence of paramilitary power in Mosul, continuing US casualties (including seven American soldiers killed in a helicopter crash near Basra on 18 September), and political difficulties (especially with the Kurds in the northeast) all mean that US military commanders are notably reluctant to talk about substantial troop withdrawals - notwithstanding that the George W Bush administration’s narrative of victory demands just this. There will be some modest reductions, in part because made necessary to allow an increase in forces in Afghanistan, but many circles in the Pentagon regard even these as risky.

A new adversary

In Afghanistan itself, what has become even more evident than just a few weeks ago is that much of the focus of attention has shifted strongly towards Pakistan. This now extends to Washington’s direct military engagement in Pakistan - which pays little heed to the wishes of or the response from the Islamabad government, the Pakistani army and, above all, the Pakistani people. More and more evidence is emerging that United States operations across the border have escalated rapidly, and that this may well become the dominant theme of the coming months.

The Reuters and McClatchy news agencies suggested that a Pakistani army unit even fired warning artillery-shots, but army sources denied any involvement and claimed that it was local paramilitaries that were responsible for the gunfire. Wherever the truth lies, it seems highly likely that a US cross-border operation was attempted but was subsequently abandoned.

This is the latest of several US attacks within Pakistan, all of them allowable following a confidential order from President Bush in July 2008 (Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, "Bush Said To Give Orders Allowing Raids In Pakistan", New York Times, 11 September 2008). In early September, one of the first attacks permitted by the new policy evidently went badly wrong when fifteen people - mostly women and children were killed. This caused anger across Pakistan and may do much to explain the actions of Pakistani soldiers in firing at US troops this week.

A nerve-end deployment

This will have little effect on US military planning and it is clear that a wide range of operations is under consideration. The use of Predator armed drones has already increased substantially, with many of the planes being brought from other regions to patrol key districts of western Pakistan (see Greg Miller & Julian E Barnes, "Higher-Tech Predators Targeting Pakistan", Los Angeles Times, 12 September 2008). The intention is also to increase intelligence activities, undertake special-forces raids to kill or capture al-Qaida and Taliban suspects and even use the massively powerful AC-130 gunships inside Pakistani territory.

There is currently a specific hope that these increased activities will lead to the death or capture of al-Qaida’s chief strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri, or even Osama bin Laden himself; preferably just before the US presidential election on 4 November 2008, so that the candidacy of John McCain will be given a late boost.

The problem is that all of the operations face the same difficulty (see "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge", 28 August 2008). If the "safe havens" in Pakistan took the form of static training-camps, arms-dumps, barracks, motor-pools and other obvious targets - as would be the case with conventional armies - then the massive firepower available to the US military would make it a relatively straightforward task to disrupt or even destroy them. The Pakistani government might protest loudly but the demonstrable military results of such attacks would outweigh this.

The reality is very different. For an entire generation, since the early 1980s, the Taliban and other paramilitary groups have become deeply embedded in the communities of western Pakistan. This is also true of many of the foreign fighters - from Chechnya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere - who have often married into these local communities (see "Pakistan’s tribal areas", Economist, 18 September 2008).

The consequence, for a US special-forces raid for example, is complication. An operation aimed at a small town where al-Qaida or Taliban operatives are known to be based faces the task not of attacking a specific compound but of becoming involved in house-to-house searches of fifty or more buildings - where paramilitaries, adult villagers and children are all integrated into a single community. A careful and effective search may take hours, and be conducted in the knowledge that at any moment the searchers may be attacked. In such circumstances, they may be quick to use force and civilian casualties are almost unavoidable.

If armed drones are used, then "collateral damage" is well-nigh certain (see Yochi J Dreazen, "U.S. to Expand Drone Use, Other Surveillance in Afghanistan", Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2008). The Taliban, al-Qaida and other militias are not structured as freestanding units in their own narrowly defined localities - they form part of much larger affective networks. It might have been possible to use hundreds of troops to "take apart" a village in Iraq - even if the results there were frequently to increase an anti-American mood - but in Pakistan this is simply impossible without a major and permanent US military presence within the country.

This is politically impracticable at present and for the foreseeable future, yet the Pentagon sees no option but to acquire the means to pursue the paramilitary groups. The visit of the US defence secretary Robert M Gates to Kabul and Jalalabad on 17 September featured an expression of regret for the many civilian casualties inflicted by coalition air-raids, but no shift in policy: the pledge of "additional forces" in 2009 was repeated, amid caution among military commanders about the progress of the US strategy (see Al Pessin, "U.S. Faces Challenges in Afghanistan", Voice of America, 18 September 2008). The likely order of the day is extensive special-forces operations, the widespread use of Predator drones and even conventional air-power.

A deeper engagement

The US military intends to increase operations on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border during the normally quiet winter months (see Jason Straziuso, "U.S. Troops In Afghanistan Preparing Winter Offensive", Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 September 2008). It expects to be able to do this with the acquiescence of the government in Islamabad. The George W Bush administration believes this is possible because the dire state of the Pakistani economy is such that the government is increasingly relying on US financial assistance.

But this makes no allowance for Pakistani public opinion, nor for the views of the army. Indeed, it may be that the reaction of the Pakistani army will prove pivotal in all this (see Zahid Hussain, "Pakistan Issues Threat Over U.S. Incursions", Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2008). It is relevant here that many officers and troops engaged in the border areas are Pashtuns who have close affinities with their fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan; and that elements in the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency have long had close connections with the Taliban.

Moreover, the Pakistani army as a whole may be deeply antagonistic to the United States extending its war into Pakistan and affronted by what is seen as an assault on its position within Pakistani society. That is a recipe for disaster, yet it appears beyond the understanding of the Pentagon and even much of the US state department. The consequences could be both violent and unpredictable.

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