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A misread war

Friday 27 February 2009, by Paul Rogers

The war in Afghanistan is reaching a pivotal moment. A range of diplomats, politicians and military strategists from dozens of countries is now paying the conflict the intense and concentrated international attention that it long seemed to lack while events in Iraq took centre-stage. But as the earlier combat-zone in the "war on terror" returns to the forefront, there is a notable tendency to misconstrue the story of the years since October 2001 in Afghanistan - in ways that might mislead policy-makers and analysts today into repeating earlier flawed assessments.

The dominant interpretation of what has happened in Afghanistan has many components of the critical situation of early 2009 to draw on. The problems of coalition troop numbers, of counterproductive military tactics, of the persistence of insurgent fighters, of Kabul’s governance and of events across the border in Pakistan - all these are more than enough to keep western policy-makers awake at night.

A distorted view

The insufficient numbers of troops to address the insurgency by Taliban and other militias is a core concern. The Nato meeting in Krakow on 19-20 February 2009 ended with few indications of any increase in troops in Afghanistan other than those already announced by the Pentagon (see "The AfPak war: Washington’s three options", 20 February 2009). At the same time, there are further indications that the United States at least is following up earlier pledges (including by Barack Obama before and since his election) to inject new forces and funds into the country.

An important development is the substantial reinforcement of US specialist units training an elite 400-strong Pakistani commando unit drawn from the Frontier Corps (see Eric Schmitt & Jane Perlez, "US trains Pakistanis in tribal regions", International Herald Tribune, 23 February 2009). More than seventy US military advisers - mainly from army special forces - are now working with the Pakistani troops, triple the numbers of late 2008. The increase in personnel apparently has the approval of the Islamabad administration, despite the sensitivity of such direct US involvement in Pakistan’s internal-security affairs.

This comes at a time when Pakistani intelligence sources have acknowledged the effects of the Pentagon’s use of armed drones in killing al-Qaida and Taliban figures within Pakistan but have pointed to an unexpected radicalising impact over and above the impact of frequent civilian deaths. A number of al-Qaida leaders have been killed in these raids, though this seems to have little effect at lower levels:

"Al Qaeda is replenishing its fighters and midlevel leaders killed in Pakistan’s tribal areas with less experienced but even more hard-core militants, the Pakistani intelligence officials said. Al-Qaeda’s robust recruiting effort - using sophisticated Web sites and small sleeper cells across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia - is enlisting young fighters who are quicker to use brute terror and savage tactics than the militants they are replacing, the officials said" (see Eric Schmitt & Jane Perlez, "Attacks on Al Qaeda concentrate its threat to Pakistan Attacks by U.S.", International Herald Tribune, 25 February 2009).

Both developments are indications of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan (see "Afghanistan’s critical moment", 6 February 2009). At the same time, they can be used to confirm a prevailing and somewhat distorting narrative: namely, that Afghanistan’s deep insecurity today is a product of the 2006-08 period, after five years of relative peace after the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001.

A forgotten war

In many ways this is a misreading of what happened at the end of 2001 and through 2002, when the George W Bush administration was hugely confident of its success against al-Qaida and was already looking ahead to eliminating the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. It was a period of great optimism - even euphoria - on the American side, fuelled by the characteristic neo-conservative mix of vengeful outrage and ideological zeal after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

This was powerfully embodied by Bush’s state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002. What amounted to a victory speech is best remembered for the manner in which the then president imaginatively extended the post-9/11 war on terror into a much wider conflict against the "axis of evil" (Iraq, Iran and North Korea). Much of the speech (which was punctuated by over seventy bursts of applause) in fact focused on the proclaimed success of the campaign in Afghanistan; but the underlying assumption was that the anti-Taliban effort was completed, and that the Kabul triumph was the achieved first episode in a rolling global campaign. In military terms, Afghanistan was over.

This theme set the tone for the 2002-03 period; it was constantly reiterated in Washington as attention turned to Iraq. The sheer neglect of what actually was happening during these months in Afghanistan is striking; for as the reconstruction efforts began, there was abundant evidence that a major insurgency was already beginning to develop in Afghanistan. It remains difficult to explain even now why the fixation on Iraq was so powerful that those military advisers pointing to problems in Afghanistan were so consistently ignored.

Even within a month of the dispersal of the Taliban militias from most Afghan towns and cities in November 2001, major incidents were already occurring. The last major city to fall to the Northern Alliance and US forces was Kandahar in early December; yet just days later a bitter conflict was unfolding in the mountains around Tora Bora. This was an early indication that the war could prove protracted. It coincided with a remarkable intervention by the head of Britain’s armed forces - the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce.

This was in the form of a speech on 10 December 2001 to an influential audience at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Whitehall, the heart of Britain’s political and diplomatic establishment. A column at the time summarised his views: Boyce "warned against the idea that a war on terror could be won by intensive military action while failing to recognise the root causes of the problem. More than that, he warned that the use of excessive force could even tend to radicalise Islamic opinion" (see "The next frontier", 17 December 2001).

The views of Michael Boyce - notwithstanding his senior position and authority - appeared to count for little; certainly this was the case in Washington, where the super-confident attitude also survived the extensive problems encountered by US troops in Operation Anaconda in spring 2002 (see "The spiral of war", 6 March 2002). The start of this operation, near Gardez, was reported as follows:

"An opening advance on Saturday by Afghan and US Special Forces, intended to flush out suspected al Qaeda fighters in the town of Sirkanel, was thwarted when enemy gunfire kept coalition troops pinned down for hours. Elements of the 10th Mountain Division also were reported stopped in their tracks Saturday in a 12-hour battle outside the town of Marzak. Mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades landed as close as 15 yards to their position and 13 American soldiers were wounded" (see "Ambush at Takur Ghar", Washington Post, 6 March 2002).

The fighting continued for days. The US reinforced its capabilities with five attack-helicopters and two transport-helicopters flown in from an amphibious-assault ship; strike aircraft were also deployed, which dropped 450 bombs in four days as well as using fuel-air explosives. Many paramilitaries were killed, though most survived; the US forces lost eight killed and thirty wounded.

A distracted eye

The events of early 2002 were an ignored premonition. In the ensuing months there were many more incidents, often involving the frequent use of air power by United States forces to counter guerrilla attacks. For example, an air strike on 1 July 2002 killed forty-eight people and wounded over 120 at a wedding, provoking bitter anti-American sentiments.

What is remarkable is that much of this sounds much like the war reporting of 2008-09; it is worth emphasising that this was almost seven years ago, at a time when the mindset in Washington that the Afghanistan "problem" had ended was deep-rooted.

The preoccupation with Iraq was a big part of the reason for this failure to look at and register what was happening in Afghanistan. Another factor that is now almost forgotten, however, was the large-scale Israeli military assault across much of the West Bank ordered by Ariel Sharon (then Israel’s prime minister) following a spate of suicide-bombings in Israel. The conflict, which led to much loss of life and the large-scale destruction of the administrative and media infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, reached its peak in April 2002. The attention given to Iraq and Israel-Palestine in this critical period represented also a further major diversion from Afghanistan.

Yet even the way that Iraq and Israel-Palestine combined with the assumption of an Afghan war "won" do not fully explain why Washington’s political leadership - including crucial figures such as vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld - failed to recognise the way in which the conflict with al-Qaida was developing (see "The war on terror: past, present, future", 23 August 2006). This is even more confounding given that 2002 was a period of multiple paramilitary attacks across the world. These were only a few:

▪ March: an attack on church worshippers in Islamabad, killed five people and injured forty-six

▪ April: the bombing of a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, killed fourteen German tourists and seven Tunisians, and injured twenty-four

▪ May: an attack on a bus in Karachi killed eleven French naval technicians and three Pakistanis, and injured twenty-four

▪ June: a bomb-attack on the United States consulate in Karachi killed eleven people and injured at least forty-five

▪ October: a bomb-attack on the Limburg tanker off the coast of Yemen

▪ October: a bomb hit the Sari nightclub in Bali, killing 202 people (including eighty-eight Australians and thirty-eight Indonesians) and injuring 300

▪ November: a missile was fired at the helicopter of a US oil company as it took off from Sana’ a airport in Yemen

▪ November: a rocket was fired at an Israeli tourist jet leaving Mombasa airport, Kenya; and a bomb at the Paradise Hotel at Kikambala north of Mombasa killed eleven people and injured fifty.

A neglected voice

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, some analysts suggested that one of the attack’s main motives was an attempt to draw western forces into Afghanistan in the belief that they would suffer the same fate as had the Soviet Union’s army in the 1980s. This is now a fairly widespread view in military circles, though it also often expressed in a way that consigns the early years of the Afghan insurgency down a memory-hole (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 23 September 2001).

The implication of the establishment view remains that to some degree al-Qaida and Taliban militias were defeated in 2001-02, and have after a lengthy hiatus been able to regroup and refocus their campaign. There have indeed been peaks and troughs in the war, but the entire course of the war in Afghanistan needs to be seen much more as a continuum; many of the present indicators - among them the crucial element of western air-strikes killing innocent civilians - were already painfully evident during 2002.

There were very few senior military or political figures who at that time had a clear view of what was really unfolding in Afghanistan and beyond - and one that stands the test of time. Michael Boyce, speaking exactly three months after 9/11, was one. His judgment apparently carried little weight in London or Washington. His successors, and many others besides, now face the consequences.