AfPak-Iraq: Wrong War, Wrong Thinking

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AfPak-Iraq: Wrong War, Wrong Thinking

The United States faces mounting problems in the three leading conflict-zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The escape-route lies not in military escalation but in a change of thinking.

by
Paul Rogers

The term "global war on terror" has long since been dropped from the United States's official vocabulary. The phrase that came to be proposed as a replacement even when George W Bush was still in office, the "long war", has similarly fallen by the wayside, to be succeeded in March 2009 by a less overtly combative Pentagon formulation: "overseas contingency operation". But it is easier for the Barack Obama administration to redefine the conflict it is involved in than to change the bleak current reality in three main flashpoints - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq:

* the coordinated suicide-attack and rocket-attack in the early morning of 28 October 2009 on two high-profile civilian targets in Kabul - the Bekhtar guest-house and Serena Hotel - are a sign that the deepening insecurity in Afghanistan reaches even to the heart of the capital. The Bekhtar incident ended in the deaths of twelve people, including five United Nations staff who were helping to oversee the re-run of the presidential election on 7 November

* the devastating market-bombing in Peshawar, also on 28 October, are part of a widening insurgency in Pakistan. The attack killed over ninety people, and coincided with the arrival of United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the country for high-level talks with Pakistani leaders

* the suicide-bomb operations against Iraq's justice ministry and the administrative headquarters of Baghdad's region on 25 October - which killed at least 155 people and wounded over 500 - are a reminded that violence in Iraq remains endemic and that insurgents retain the capacity to strike close to the heart of power.

The rising tide

In Afghanistan, the great concern over the Kabul assaults is accentuated by awareness of four serious security developments elsewhere in the country:

* the war is continuing to spread to previously peaceful areas. German troops in Kunduz province in the north of the country, for example, are involved in direct combat for the first time in over six decades (see Nicholas Kulish, "German Limits on War Face Afghan Reality", International Herald Tribune, 27 October 2009)

* the increasing effectiveness of the attacks on foreign troops. United States forces are suffering relentless casualties: sixty-seven troops have been killed so far in October 2009, including seven on 27 October in multiple, "complex" bomb-attacks on an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province

* after the United States withdrew troops from four bases in Nuristan province in northeast Afghanistan (and adjacent to Pakistan), it has effectively fallen under the control of a Taliban network led by Qari Ziaur Rahman, a leader with close links to al-Qaida (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Taliban take over Afghan province", Asia Times, 28 October 2009)

* it is now becoming ever more clear that the United States forces and the wider Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) coalition is facing military opposition from groups that extend beyond Taliban militias and some loosely associated warlord networks; these include scores of local militias that have very little to do with the Taliban but work to protect their own power-bases and resist what they see as a foreign occupation.

All war is local

The implication of these trends is that a transition from insurgency to a broader insurrection may be occurring - and that deploying even more American and allied troops (as Barack Obama and his advisers are currently discussing) risks increasing rather than diminishing the military challenge (see "Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection" [8 October 2009] and "AfPak: the unwinnable war" [16 October 2009]).

Some US military and political officers on the ground are beginning to register these dynamics. Matthew Hoh, a senior US state department official and former marine who was based until recently in Zabul province, explained his resignation on 10 September 2009 by referring to his experiences in the Korengal valley and elsewhere. These, he is reported as saying:

"taught him ‘how localised the insurgency was. I didn't realize that a group in this valley here has no connection with an insurgent group two kilometres away.' Hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups across Afghanistan, he decided, had few ideological ties to the Taliban but took its money to fight the foreign intruders and maintain their own local power bases. ‘That's really what shook me,' he said. ‘I thought it was more nationalistic. But it's localism. I would call it valley-ism'" (see Karen De Young, "U.S. official resigns over Afghan war", Washington Post, 27 October 2009).

The Barack Obama administration has yet to decide whether to deploy up to the 40,000 additional troops requested in General Stanley A McChrystal's report; it still appears to want to delay the decision until political stability can be established in Kabul (through the 7 November re-run of the presidential election, and perhaps the formation of a national or emergency government). But the core dilemma remains: that deploying more troops is in current conditions likely to prove counterproductive, and only deepen the military quagmire.

There is a close parallel here with what is happening across the border in Pakistan. An extensive operation by the Pakistani army in Waziristan, launched with a certain fanfare on 17 October 2009 as attempt to occupy this key region and decisively curb Taliban control there, is too facing the reality of an intractable and well-organised opposition resistant to straightforward military solutions.

The Pakistani offensive lacks the equipment, the flexibility and the combat-troop levels (perhaps as many as 50,000) that would all be required to subdue the entire district; as a result, it now has the more limited aim of neutralising the influence of some important militia leaders. Even this will be hard enough. In addition, cities such as Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore as well as Peshawar have endured high-profile insurgent assaults; and the Peshawar explosion on 28 October is further evidence that the army's well-publicised operations cannot prevent (and may indeed provoke) violent incidents elsewhere in Pakistan.

The Baghdad blues

Amid this comfortless prospect, the situation in Iraq has appeared to present more hopeful evidence that here at least - both before and since United States forces started their partial withdrawal from Iraq's cities on 30 June 2009 - Washington's military strategy was showing the desired results.

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 books include 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. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

At the same time, the very concentration of focus on "AfPak" during much of 2009 has tended to mean that the continuing severe violence and tension in parts of the country have been underplayed. There has, for example, been a series of bombings against Shi'a-populated areas whose resulting carnage is barely conveyed by the death-tolls: over 120 killed in the strikes against markets in Sadr city in April and June, seventy-one dead at a Shi'a shrine in Baghdad in April, forty-four  killed at a Shi'a mosque in Mosul in August. This is but a partial list.

The intention seems clear: to polarise Shi'a and Sunni communities and provoke further conflict. But those responsible have other targets, including the Iraqi government's infrastructure and its security forces (which are supplemented, despite the ending of full-scale American patrols in urban areas, by US troops in what amount to joint operations).

It is in these circumstances that the insurgents have expanded their tactics by launching large-scale assaults against major government centres. In August 2009, these destroyed or inflicted serious damage on the foreign, finance and health ministries (with 102 people killed and more than 500 wounded); the 25 October attacks hit two more centres. An especially serious aspect of this approach is the suggestion that the militants' ability to penetrate government buildings is possible only with a degree of collaboration from inside Iraq's security forces.

The real debate

The death of the United Nations staff in the Kabul attacks on 28 October is a further significant aspect of the current situation. It shows that some militant groups deliberately target the more neutral expatriates precisely because their work involves efforts to resolve conflicts in times of intense difference. The input of UN agencies - such as the World Food Programme, five of whose officials were killed in an attack at its Islamabad offices on 5 October 2009 - can help provide space for limited progress even amid conflict, and this is what the more extreme elements in a dispute can find intolerable.

In this respect the Kabul incident belongs to a pattern includes the assassination of Count Bernadotte by militants of the Israeli rightwing Lehi group in Jerusalem in September 1948, and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 which killed the envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one others. In the latter case, the Baghdad canteen of the UN complex was in the early months of the Iraq war was one of the very few "neutral spaces" where Iraqis and expatriates of widely differing backgrounds and attitudes could meet informally. That was reason enough for it to be vulnerable; the human and psychological damage hugely diminished the UN's role in attempting to heal wounds and avert the continuation of violence.

This adds a problematic element to the argument that the United Nations should play a more prominent and strategic role in current and future "international interventions" (see Pierre Schori & Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, "Afghanistan: peacekeeping without peace", 26 October 2009). This is difficult enough to achieve when a military conflict has become rooted or where powerful trends point in that direction; it is made even harder when insurgent factions precisely seek to destroy UN personnel and disrupt their activities.

All this focuses a chilling beam onto the troubles of the United States and its allies (see Ahmed Rashid, "Trotsky in Baluchistan" [National Interest, November-December 2009]). There seems little hope of immediate respite. The conflict in what has become known as "AfPak" has since 2006-07 continued even through the winter months, while the hoped-for peace in Iraq is looking brittle.

If there is a way ahead, it rests not on short-term calculations about troop numbers but on a larger reassessment by the Barack Obama administration of the entire US security posture in the middle east and southwest Asia (see "A world in need: the case for sustainable security", 10 September 2009). This will have to do more than crisis-manage the dire problems inherited from George W Bush; what is needed is no less than a move beyond military-led thinking to an integrated understanding of what security in the 21st century actually is. 

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

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