Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge of calamity

Published on openDemocracy, by Paul Rogers, Aug 31, 2008 (This article was first published on 28 August 2008).

(The Taliban’s sophisticated, deadly new tactics are bringing the group closer to Kabul. The United States response is to redouble the failed tactics that helped achieve this outcome).

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“, 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) …

… 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. (full text).

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