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On the cliff-edge

Friday 29 August 2008, by Paul Rogers

The Taliban sophisticated, deadly new tactics are bringing them closer to Kabul. The United States response is to redouble the failed tactics that helped achieve this outcome, says Paul Rogers 28 - 08 - 2008

Many sober analysts of the war in Afghanistan expected a military offensive by the Taliban in the early months of 2008. They also suspected that Taliban paramilitaries would avoid major confrontations with foreign forces, out of awareness of the overwhelming firepower that these could launch even on quite small groups. They expected instead an extension of the use of small raids, improvised roadside-bombs and suicide-attacks.

In the event these tactics have indeed been widely used. But the increased level of Taliban activity has been expressed in many other ways as well. They have included a closely coordinated assault on a prison in Kandahar that released hundreds of Taliban detainees; an attack on the Serena international hotel in the heart of Kabul on 14 January; the bombing of the Indian embassy there on 7 July; and a major increase in attacks on transport links (see "The global economic war", 14 August 2008).

This widening of targets is serious enough for American, British and other military commanders. What has really surprised them, however, has been the ability of Taliban and other militias to engage in significant conventional military attacks. One of these, on 13 July, killed nine United States troops in a newly established but isolated base in Kunar province; another, on 19 August, killed ten French soldiers in Sar0bi (Surobi) district, only fifty kilometres east of Kabul. The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan had even before these assaults been reflected in the redeployment of a full aircraft-carrier battle-group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Indian Ocean to bring its planes within range of southern Afghanistan.

The result is to provide the US with far more airpower. In addition, the group’s flagship has offered itself as a venue for high-level diplomacy: top US and Pakistani military commanders (including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs-of-staff ,and General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistan army’s chief-of-staff) met on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 26 August to analyse the security crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself - without, it seems, a positive result (see Pauline Jelinek, "Pentagon brass meet with Pakistanis on carrier", Associated Press, 28 August 2008).

By the last week of August 2008, the total US military death-toll in Afghanistan has reached 580; as many as 105 have been killed in 2008 alone, including sixty-five in May-July, the worst period since the war started in October 2001 (see Jason Straziuso, "US deaths reach 101 for the year in Afghanistan", Associated Press, 25 August 2008).

Across the border in Pakistan, there were credible reports of an expanding Taliban/al-Qaida training system, with new camps established in the border districts (see "Afghanistan: state of siege", 10 July 2008). Some limited Pakistani army actions had very little effect (see Jane Perlez & Pir Zubair Shah, "Pakistani Taliban Repel Government Offensive", New York Times, 10 August 2008), while sixty-four people were killed in a double bombing of one of Pakistan’s largest munitions factories (see Jane Perlez, "64 in Pakistan Die in Bombing at Arms Plant", New York Times, 22 August 2008).

An argument of force

There is now a developing consensus that Taliban militias, along with warlord groups and al-Qaida paramilitaries, have considerably expanded their influence across much of southern and southeastern Afghanistan, with Taliban/al-Qaida elements also gaining control of large areas of western Pakistan close to the Afghan border (see Jason Straziuso, "U.S. Losing Edge in Afghanistan, Experts Fear", AP/Arizona Republic, 25 August 2008). A deep concern over the vulnerability of the major military supply-routes from the Pakistani port of Karachi through to Kabul has been compounded by a Russian threat to suspend its agreement with Nato for transit of military materials through its own territory (see Jeremy Page, "Russian Threat to Nato Supply Route In Afghanistan", Times, 26 August 2008).

The coalition’s reliance on air-power has resulted in further civilian casualties. Around 700 Afghan civilians have been killed in January-August 2008; the worst such incident being on 21 August when, according to United Nations sources, at least sixty children and thirty adults were killed in a US air- raid (see Jon Boone, "UN confirms 90 civilians killed in Afghanistan air strikes", Financial Times, 27 August 2008. Meanwhile, Taliban units are now operating close to Kabul, and have advanced to secure control of parts of Kandahar (see Carlotta Gall, "Taliban Gain New Foothold in Afghan City", New York Times, 27 August 2008).

From the Pentagon’s perspective, what is to be done? Most of the foreign forces in Afghanistan are under Nato control in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf); but this is largely under the leadership of the United States, and the overall war in Afghanistan is dominated by US planning and support. Britain, together with Canada and the Netherlands, may be heavily involved in counter-insurgency operations, but they are relatively small actors in a scene where the Pentagon is the driving-force.

Thus, the views of Washington are decisive: and the overwhelming judgment there - across the political spectrum - is that Afghanistan is now the central focus of the "war on terror". The John McCain and Barack Obama camps each take the view that there must be a substantial increase in the use of military force in Afghanistan, especially if some limited withdrawals from Iraq become possible (see Godfrey Hodgson, "America’s foreign-policy election", 28 August 2008).

A game of consequence

Thus, the bottom-line is that there is only one answer to the Taliban revival, the revitalisation of al-Qaida, and even the jihadist presence in western Pakistan: the application of intense military force. There is simply no other way.

This has three key consequences. The first is that the more force that is applied in Afghanistan the greater the risk not just of civilian casualties but of creating an environment in which the foreign military presence is seen more and more as an occupation. There are already well over 60,000 foreign troops in the country, with the majority engaged in combat. Moreover, civilian deaths are causing such controversy that Kabul’s political class is trying to distance itself from the United States. As a military build-up intensifies in late 2008, there is a strong risk that the perception of occupation will extend well beyond the Taliban and other militias together with their immediate supporters.

The second consequence is that the more a perception of western occupation grows, the more likely it is that the opposing forces take on a perspective of global jihad. Most previous resistance to foreign forces, as against the Soviets in the 1980s, was grounded in nationalist or ethnic sentiment rather than being part of a global movement. Over the past year there have been clear signs that Taliban militias in conjunction with the al-Qaida movement and paramilitaries that have travelled from north Africa, the middle east and central Asia have increasingly seen their insurgency as elements in just such a movement.

Moreover, the impulses of sympathy with these radical forces are fuelled by the detailed reporting by al-Jazeera and other media outlets of the many civilian victims of western air-strikes and other calamities in Afghanistan. This ensures that Muslims across the rest of the world are , just as Iraq has done so over the past five years. Muslims across the rest of the world are becoming as aware of what is happening in Afghanistan as they have been regarding Iraq since 2003 (see "Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008).

The third consequence is the state of Pakistan, where political instability and the resignation of Pervez Musharraf entails a decrease in United States influence over actions in the border districts. Many of these districts are independent of Islamabad’s control, paramilitary training-camps are operating, supplies readily pass through to Afghanistan, and supportive populations provide a stream of recruits to the cause across the border (see Eric Schmitt, "Top military officials discuss violence along Pakistani border", International Herald Tribune, 28 August 2008). Almost all military analysts agree that the subjugation of the Taliban and associated warlords in Afghanistan is impossible as long as this situation continues. The al-Qaida leadership has also sufficiently reconstituted itself in western Pakistan to be able once more to exert influence even beyond the middle east and southwest Asia (see "Al-Qaida’s afterlife", 29 May 2008).

A bitter harvest

The impact of these developments on the United States is to increase the conviction that to win the war in Afghanistan requires the application of greater force there and an acceptance that at some stage the US will have to intervene forcefully in western Pakistan (see Peter Spiegel & Josh Meyer, "U.S. Debates Going After Militants in Pakistan", Los Angeles Times, 23 August 2008). There are alternatives, including an acceptance of the need to engage systematically with some of the less radical militia elements, but these are simply not on Washington’s agenda. Thus a more intense and more extensive war seems likely between now and early 2010, with the likelihood that this is just what the al-Qaida movement wants.

In 2003, a few analysts warned that occupying Iraq would lead to an intense and dangerous conflict that would serve as a jihadist combat training-zone of great value to the al-Qaida movement (see, for example, "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003). That was indeed the outcome; and an American insistence on remaining in Iraq - whatever the Nouri al-Maliki government may want - means that Iraq may yet come to the fore in this role again. For now, though, the focus moves on - or more correctly, back - to Afghanistan.

When the nineteen hijackers perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities, the al-Qaida movement no doubt expected that the United States would occupy Afghanistan and could be vanquished there in a war of grinding attrition, just as the Soviets had been. In the event, to terminate the Taliban regime the Pentagon cleverly used air-power, special forces and a rearming of the Northern Alliance rather than a direct occupation.

Even then, this seemed to be too easy. One of the earliest columns in this series suggested that: " apparent US victory achieved before the end of the year may, in reality, be just a further stage in a longer-term civil war in Afghanistan. This is supported by the likelihood that many Taliban and al-Qaida units have already crossed the border into north-west Pakistan, where there is substantial local support for their position..." (see "The ninth week of the war", 4 December 2001).

Now that a direct occupation of Afghanistan has evolved and is set to expand, there is the added complication of deep insecurity across the border in Pakistan. Only two months away from the eighth year of the start of the Afghan war - and following their recent setbacks in Iraq - Osama bin Laden and the other elements of the al-Qaida leadership may well be looking forward to a new era in their conflict with their "far enemy". Iraq has to an extent served its purpose, but Afghanistan may now come to overshadow even that bitter and costly conflict.

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