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State of siege

Thursday 10 July 2008, by Paul Rogers

A regroupment of the Taliban and al-Qaida in the Pakistani borderlands is bringing the war closer to Kabul.

On 7 July 2008 a suicide-bomber detonated a large car-bomb at the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing forty-one people and injuring 141. The embassy stands in one of the most secure parts of Afghanistan’s capital, yet this did not protect it from what security forces described as the worst bombing in the city since the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001. Taliban sources denied that the movement was responsible, while Afghan sources implied (albeit without supporting evidence) a Pakistani intelligence connection. The high death-toll is in part attributable to the fact that many people were queuing at the embassy at the time; this may be a factor too in the Taliban reaction, for it has been a regular practice of the group to deny responsibility for attacks where large numbers of civilians are killed.

Whoever was responsible, the Indian embassy attack came at a time of escalating violence in Afghanistan marked by a number of high-profile paramilitary actions. These include an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai at a military parade on 27 April 2008), and the dramatic raid on Sarpoza prison in Kandahar which freed dozens of Taliban prisoners and which was followed by the seizure of several villages close to the city (see "Afghanistan in an amorphous war", 19 June 2008). A day after the embassy attack, a bomb was found on a bus carrying Indian workers in the province of Nimroz (where many Indian projects, including the strategic Zarang-Delaram highway project, are centred).

A pattern of killing

The seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan has led to the United States navy’s redeployment of a carrier battle-group led by the aircraft-carrier USS Abraham Lincoln from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea; this will enable US strike aircraft to provide further air-power in Afghanistan.

The problem with this response is the danger it carries of continuing the pattern of inflicting civilian deaths in misdirected air-strikes, which in turn provokes affected communities to turn against the coalition forces. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that in the period of 2-7 July 2008 alone, paramilitary violence and coalition military action together killed at least 250 civilians, and that deaths caused by US air power being a particular source of tension on the ground (see ICRC, "Civilians in the line of fire", 9 July 2008).

The question of deaths as a result of missile-strikes is a source of great controversy. In two recent incidents, for example, there is dispute over the identity of the dead Afghans. Local Afghan officials claimed that the fifteen people who died in a US missile attack in Kunar province on 4 July were civilians, while American spokespersons insisted that only militants were killed; Afghan officials were equally adamant that the at least twenty-seven victims of a missile-attack on 6 July included nineteen women and children, reportedly members of a group of around eighty or so people in a wedding party who were taking a rest while walking to the groom’s house.

Whatever the true circumstances of these and other cases, the killing of civilians by coalition forces is deeply unsettling and has added to the anti-western mood in many parts of the country already hard-pressed by problems such as growing food insecurity. The pattern of civilian deaths also comes at a time when coalition sources are beginning to admit to the seriousness of the strategic predicament they face in Afghanistan.

A chain of influence

Each year since the Taliban regime was ended, foreign troop numbers in the country have risen; the single greatest increase has been since early 2007, with 20,000 additional troops arriving to take the overall total to around 66,000 (see the editorial, "Afghan Escalation", Washington Post, 6 July 2008). Despite this, the intensity of Taliban activity has also increased. Much of it is seasonal, with less fighting during the severe winter months, but even here there has been a change. In recent years, suicide-attacks in cities such as Kabul and Kandahar have increased overall, but they have also continued through the winter months.

For the US forces, the biggest surprise has been the growth in Taliban activity in the eastern part of the country. This region, close to the Pakistan border, has been garrisoned by US forces operating independently of Nato, and there have been frequent claims of progress over the past two years. The US forces and spokespersons have made pointed references to the contrast between their "success" and the difficulties experienced by British troops in Helmand province and the Canadians in Kandahar.

Now, though, the US claims are sounding less assured. The newly-appointed US military commander for eastern Afghanistan, Major-General Jeffrey J Schloesser, has highlighted the increased sophistication of the methods used by the insurgents as a factor in the rising violence. This has led to a near-doubling of the number of US troops killed in the country in the first six months of 2008 compared with the similar period in 2007. What has become particularly noticeable has been the more widespread use of roadside bombs, with tactics developed in Iraq being deployed in Afghanistan (see Peter Spiegel & Julian E Barnes, "Afghan Attacks Rise, U.S. Says", Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2008).

The escalation of violence in Afghanistan has two other elements. The first is a loss of support for the war in a number of Nato member-states that have committed troops. A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted in a number of Nato countries in April 2008 (even before the violence intensified in the following two months) found majority support for the withdrawal of Nato forces - ranging from 54% to 72% in countries including France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Turkey (see Jim Lobe, "Afghanistan Moves Back Into the Limelight", Inter Press Service, 3 July 2008).

The second element is the steady rise in power of Taliban and al-Qaida paramilitaries in western Pakistan. The Pakistan-based Taliban militias now have considerable influence in many of the border districts of Pakistan, including parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies, and North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

This influence in turn has two effects. The first is that Taliban groups fighting in Afghanistan have safe havens across the border; but if US forces mount raids into western Pakistan this simply stirs up more anti-American feelings across the country.

The second effect, and just as significant from a US perspective, is that the Taliban control has allowed al-Qaida to regenerate. An informed assessment is that there are as many as two thousand paramilitaries established in training camps in western Pakistan, up from several hundred three years ago (see Mark Mazzetti & David Rohde, "Amid Policy Disputes, Qaeda Grows in Pakistan", New York Times, 30 June 2008). The issue has been complicated by differences of opinion within the United States over the need for US forces, whether CIA, special forces or regular military, to operate within Pakistan. This remains unresolved but has become even more complicated by the uncertainties of politics within Pakistan itself (see Gary Thomas, "Instability, Uncertainty, Fuel Pakistan, Afghan Attacks", Voice of America, 8 July 2008).

A "winning fight"

Pervez Musharraf remains president, though his diminishing influence means that his markedly pro-American outlook carries less weight. The coalition government remains in some disarray over the president and other issues, but its overall mood - reflecting an even stronger popular feeling - is unwillingness to allow greater US military involvement in the border districts. The bottom line, which is keenly recognised within the higher echelons of the Pakistani civil service, is that the population as a whole will simply not accept more US involvement. It has become a political non-starter.

The consequences for the US military are thoroughly negative. The senior Nato commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, states:

"The porous border has allowed insurgent militant groups a greater freedom of movement across that border, as well as a greater freedom to resupply, to allow leadership to sustain stronger sanctuaries and to provide fighters across that border" (see Eric Schmitt, "Pakistan is said to be attracting insurgents", International Herald Tribune, 10 July 2008).

American military and intelligence sources are reporting a marked increase in the involvement of foreign fighters with Taliban militias in western Pakistan. These include young men from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and the Gulf states; since March 2008 the numbers have increased (according to an unnamed Pentagon official) "from a trickle to a steady stream". This is part of a trend in which Pakistan and Afghanistan are now the focus of attention for paramilitaries intent on fighting western forces.

The International Herald Tribune report on this phenomenon is worth quoting at length:

"The American officials say the influx (of foreign fighters), which could be in the dozens but also could be higher, shows a further strengthening of the position of the forces of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, increasingly seen as an important base of support for the Taliban, whose forces in Afghanistan have become more aggressive in their campaign against American-led troops.

...American intelligence officials say that some jihadist Web sites have been encouraging foreign militants to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is considered a ‘winning fight’, compared with the insurgency in Iraq, which has suffered sharp setbacks recently.

Four senior military officials said that Al Qaeda was strengthening its increasingly close operational ties in the tribal areas with the Taliban and other various militant groups - financing, training recruits and facilitating attacks into Afghanistan, though not necessarily conducting attacks themselves."

A decisive year

The accumulating result of these trends is a deteriorating security situation across much of southern and eastern Afghanistan, made worse by the Taliban/al-Qaida revival across the border. A forceful United States government might have insisted on taking the war to Pakistan, even against the overwhelming opinion against this within that country. But the George W Bush administration is nearing the end of its term and is, in any case, far more preoccupied with Iran (see "Iraq task, Iran risk", 3 July 2008).

In April 2008 a number of analysts were suggesting that 2008 would be a decisive year for the seven-year war: either the Taliban would succumb to the overwhelming weaponry available to Nato and US forces, or the movement would increase its power. At the midpoint of the year, the latter view looks more accurate - so much so that Afghanistan might even exceed Iraq as an issue at the heart of the American presidential campaign.

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