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Al-Qaida’s afterlife

Saturday 31 May 2008, by Paul Rogers

An increased American military and political effort in Afghanistan is making the conflict there part of a new dynamic of global confrontation, says Paul Rogers

A number of current trends in Afghanistan are of far more than local significance. The pattern of violence is the most visible: for example, a series of attacks on 26-27 May 2008 killed thirty-seven people (among them police officers, soldiers, and bus passengers) in the provinces of Kandahar, Farah, Khost and Nimroz. But armed action and the bloodshed it causes are also the surface manifestation of a strategic reordering that is inserting the Afghan conflict into regional and even global realities in new ways.

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 2001
These incidents reflect the fact that many of the paramilitary groups in the country (and not just the Taliban) have become cautious about frontal assaults on western forces and are instead laying roadside- and suicide-bombs (see "Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008). The tactic is routinely directed against Afghan police and army units, as well as government officials and NGO workers (mostly local, since a majority of international agencies have withdrawn).

This incremental rise in the level of violence may continue after the opium-poppy harvest, though so too in all probability will the current minimal level of western media coverage (diminishing to near-invisibility in the United States). But if the media and publics are less than engaged in this, the first theatre of the "war of terror" after the assaults of 11 September 2001, the Pentagon is treating events in Afghanistan with utmost seriousness - and ever greater ambition.

A military-political purpose

A 2,400-strong force of US marines is now deployed in Helmand province, reportedly with as much air support as the British ground forces in the same province (which number 7,300). There are indications that further US contingents amounting to 7,000 extra troops will be deployed; in addition, the operations in Afghanistan’s embattled southern region will be transferred from Nato to direct US control (see "A war of money as well as bullets", Economist, 24 May 2008).

British, Dutch and Canadian forces in southern Afghanistan have, notwithstanding differences of approach with the US, won a certain professional respect from US military commanders. But deep divisions among these distinct Nato forces remain, and they are not helped by continuing resource constraints (US demands at the Nato conference in Bucharest in April 2008 for its allies to contribute more have had little effect, apart from a few hundred additional French troops).

The result is an American plan (born partly out of frustration) to substantially increase the firepower within the country. But this is only one part of a programme that places as much emphasis on events on the other side of the border with Pakistan.

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 most recent book is Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed
Two aspects of the Afghan dimension of this agenda are central. The first is to intensify pressure on the Pakistani government over its attitude to Pakistani Taliban leaders - in favour of a tougher approach, rather than continue with the present policy of local negotiations (see Bill Roggio, "Pakistan strikes deal with the Taliban in Mohmand", Long War Journal, 28 May 2008).

From Islamabad’s perspective, the advantage of the latest phase of its deal-making policy (highlighted in September 2006 when a formal agreement was made with Taliban fighters in the region of North Waziristan) is that this will help ease tensions in the frontier districts. Washington takes a different view: that it creates entire zones free of any government authority where Taliban militias can operate (reminiscent of the territories held by the Farc guerrillas in Colombia).

The US military wants to expand its ability to operate in these districts - as does the CIA. Both have already stepped up their activities in the region, such as aerial surveillance and ground-based intelligence (the latter from new posts just inside Afghanistan).

The current state of Pakistani politics complicates this project. The elections of 18 February 2008 have opened a new phase of instability, characterised by divisions among the leading parties and personalities (see Irfan Husain, "Pakistan’s rivalrous coalition", 19 May 2008); but the formation of a new government has also constrained further the ability of the president, Pervez Musharraf, to ensure that Pakistan accedes to American demands. Musharraf was already isolated in his pro-US stance before he was forced to allow a return to (albeit flawed) electoral democracy; now the political leaders are more able to represent the broadly anti-American mood of the country (see Jonathan Manthorpe, "Democracy in Pakistan makes it tougher for its ‘allies’, Vancouver Sun, 28 May 2008).

The power of Pakistan’s military and the rooted influence of the US in the region mean that these US efforts to increase operations in western Pakistan - to, for example, interrupt the Taliban’s delivery of supplies and personnel across the border into Afghanistan - will not be halted altogether. But the Americans now have to tread more carefully with their Pakistani "ally".

The second Afghan aspect of the US’s plan in Pakistan is equally significant: a new-found determination to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. A meeting seems to have taken place at a US base in Qatar to plan an operation to this effect, attended by General David Petraeus (the incoming heads of US Central Command), and Anne Petersen (the American ambassador to Pakistan (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "In the Footsteps of Osama", Asia Times, 28 May 2008). The focus was on the areas where bin Laden is assumed to operate: western Pakistani areas such as Bajaur Agency and neighbouring districts of Nuristan province.

The US’s triple aim, then, is:

* to pressure Pakistan to limit negotiations with militia-controlled areas of its own country

* to increase its force-level in Afghanistan to enable it to take full control of military operations in the most violent parts of the country

* to intensify the operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden and Aysan al-Zawahiri.

All three aspects, if reflected in actual achievement, would have an important public-relations component. The first and second would be portrayed in terms of effective counterinsurgency policy and action that parallel the advances championed in Iraq (even if the latter are less impressive on close inspection; see "The Iraqi whirlwind", 3 April 2008). The third objective would be especially welcomed by a George W Bush administration desperate for signs of tangible proof that the "war on terror" is bring won; it would also burnish a discreditable presidential record and may help secure a continuation of Republican control of the White House, while reducing the scale of any electoral reversals in Congress.

A life in death

Such outcomes represent very much the optimal scenario for the United States over the next four months. But even if this arrived by the time the votes are cast, it could not possibly end the serious problems posed by the current he has embodied. True, the death or detention of Osama bin Laden would undoubtedly have an impact on the al-Qaida movement, not least in curtailing some of the funding coming from Saudi Arabia, where the aura of bin Laden’s leadership still carries a cachet (see Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: The Story of a Family and its Fortune [Penguin, 2008]). At the same time, al-Qaida is a far looser entity than in 2001: a new generation of leaders is coming to the fore, and bin Laden himself is increasingly a figurehead of rather than a formative influence on this dispersed and often pervasive transnational entity.

Moreover, his death (and to a degree that of al-Qaida’s chief ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri) would make him a "martyr" to more than his followers; while his detention (assuming the Americans would be able or prepared to take him alive - and that the "surprise" is not in the other direction) would have the effect of creating a worryingly unpredictable and uncontrollable media cycle and legal process (see "A world beyond control", 22 May 2008). In strict military terms too, the precedent of Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003 - which the Americans confidently predicted would lead to the collapse of the Iraq insurgency, and did no such thing - does not augur well here.

But the Iraqi insurgency has been confined to Iraq. The wider point is that in the years since the "war on terror" was launched, a largely unrecognised process has transformed the Taliban and its partner militias from an Afghan-centred movement with ethnic and nationalist elements to a much more globally-orientated jihadist one (see Malise Ruthven, "The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists", 29 May 2008). In this light, even "success" for American forces in their current endeavours may well be the seed of further failure.

For if US forces deploy to greater effect in the region - and especially if they capture or kill their two main human targets - the domestic political effect would be more likely to favour the continuation of a hardline military policy by Washington in 2009. That, though, would be just what bin Laden’s successors - who, like their "martyr", measure in decades the conflict they are involved in - want.

Another four years of sustained US military involvement in the middle east and southwest Asia will be sweet indeed for the jihadist camp. In that case, Osama bin Laden’s sacrifice will not have been in vain: indeed, it would symbolise and reinforce the trends that are making the conflict in Afghanistan part of a still-evolving global confrontation.

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