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The abyss

Saturday 5 January 2008, by Paul Rogers

The killing of Benazir Bhutto makes the United States’s predicament in an already critical region even tougher.

The last days of 2007 were marked by major concerns by western military forces over the growing influence of Taliban militias in much of Afghanistan, as well as the continued activities of the al-Qaida movement on both sides of the border with Pakistan. These worries predated the assassination of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007, and have been intensified by its circumstances and its messy aftermath.

There are now 51,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, but they are still unable to cope with the resurgence. Of these troops, 40,000 are under Nato command in the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf): 15,000 from the United States, 25,000 from other Nato countries. The remaining 11,000 troops are almost all from the United States, with some special forces from other Nato states; together they are engaged under US command in intensive counterinsurgency operations in the southeast of the country.

A harder terrain

The French, for example, have 1,600 troops in the country, but mainly around Kabul and primarily engaged in training (see Arnaud De La Grange, "Afghanistan: France Thinks Military Action is Not the Sole Solution", Le Figaro, 24 December 2007). They do also have Mirage ground-attack aircraft based at Kandahar that are directly involved in combat operations, but it is the shortage of ground troops that concerns the Pentagon.

A particular worry for the Americans is the changing mood in Canada, whose deployment of a substantial number of troops in combat operations is now a major domestic political issue. Seventy-three Canadians have been killed so far, opposition to the war is up to 70% in Quebec and rising elsewhere, and there is a real possibility that the Ottawa government - its relative closeness to the Bush administration notwithstanding - will change its policy (see Mario Roy, "Afghanistan Fatigue", La Presse, 22 December 2007).

These limitations have been a source of dismay bordering on anger for the Pentagon. At a Nato meeting in Scotland in December 2007 the US defence secretary Robert Gates unsuccessfully tried to pressurise other member states into increasing their commitments (see Jim Mannion, "Gates Heads To Scotland For Talks on Afghan Force", AFP, 13 December 2007). Gates wanted changes in the rules of engagement for countries such as France and Germany that were restricting their operations to stabilisation and training; he also sought more material support, especially helicopters and an increase in troop numbers.

At the time, the George W Bush administration was coming under pressure to increase America’s own commitments (see Michael Abramowitz & Peter Baker, "Bush Faces Pressure to Shift War Priorities", Washington Post, 17 December 2007) - there was even some talk of a need to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

All this is against a background of changing tactics by Taliban militias in response to increased use of firepower by coalition troops. The last weeks of 2007 witnessed one of the largest paramilitary attacks for several of months when fifteen Afghan security guards were killed in an assault on a convoy of fuel-tankers in western Afghanistan, away from what had previously been the most significant areas of Taliban activity in the south and east (see Amir Shah, "15 Afghan guards killed in attack", AP, 18 December 2007).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England.