|ISSUE 59 SPRING 2009
|afghanistan: a misread war
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
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".
Both developments are indications of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 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.
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".
"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".
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
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 . 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
A neglected voice
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.