On 20th February, after lengthy and arduous talks, the Dutch coalition government collapsed, triggering a general election. The issue that created the crisis was not domestic politics, but whether Dutch troops should continue in Afghanistan beyond August this year. On the same day, Plaid Cymru’s Elfyn Llwyd, leader of the Welsh nationalists in the British Parliament, called for the withdrawal of all British troops from Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama has increased American troop numbers in the country by 30,000, taking the total of foreign troops to around 130,000; but at the same time, he announced a phased withdrawal and a handover to the Afghan regime from July 2011. Are these all signs that the long-running conflict in Afghanistan is drawing to an end in the very near future? If the major NATO-led offensive against the Taliban, Operation Moshtarak, is as successful as some optimistic commentators think, then the largest body of insurgents will soon be removed from central Helmand province and reconstruction and rebuilding of ‘safe havens’ will begin.
Afghanistan has been the focus of America’s so-called, ‘war on terror’ since October 2001 in the aftermath of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US on 11th September (Obama has dropped use of this concept). The hard-line Islamicist Taliban government, which had allowed and supported Al-Qaeda’s training camps in the country, was overthrown in 2001, but the Taliban and its supporters had regrouped in Pakistan and Afghanistan by 2003. Although a new Western-backed government was elected in 2005 with its base in the capital Kabul, it has little authority beyond this as warlords, drugs traders and the Taliban pose serious threats to a national system of political governance. Taliban leaders are said to be preparing for a ‘20-year war’ against foreign invaders and even in recent months have managed to mount attacks, killing CIA agents and government officials in the most heavily defended areas of Kabul. Whether the current intensified military campaign will succeed before July 2011 is still unclear.
Despite the language of ‘war’ and ‘warfare’ that’s used on both sides, it is legitimate to ask what kind of war is being fought out in Afghanistan. Our conventional view of war is of two or more large armies fighting each other until the power and military might of one group forces the other to surrender. This image is borne out of the experience of major conflicts between nation-states where both sides have reasonably well-matched military power at their disposal. However, this is clearly not the case in Afghanistan where NATO forces and the Afghan army have access to the most advanced technology and weaponry, whilst the Taliban use guerrilla tactics, older (albeit still modern) weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers. NATO forces number some 130,000 with a further 94,000 Afghan troops and 80,000 police, whilst best estimates of Taliban fighters are just 20,000. Can such a grossly unequal state of affairs really be described as a war at all?
Conventional inter-state wars do seem to be becoming less common, but perhaps the massive loss of life in the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars have skewed our commonsense perception of what war is? Maybe these ‘total wars’ were exceptional rather than typical? Total war mobilized entire national populations, not just armed forces, and in that sense they were different from earlier inter-state wars between smaller armies with little if any involvement of civilian populations. Certainly the ‘wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different from total wars, but they are also significantly different from those earlier inter-state wars too. For some sociologists and military historians, these contemporary conflicts are typical of a new form of war and warfare that has emerged over the last 30-40 years, known as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). RMA theorists have argued that information technology is changing warfare forever. A moment’s reflection on the role played by satellite images and targeting systems, computer-controlled missiles and new mobile communications in the organization, deployment and the waging of war in Afghanistan and Iraq shows just how important IT has become. But winning the communications war also means shaping the perceptions of the civilian population in order to prevent the insurgency taking a wider hold. NATO’s Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, noted this month that: ‘This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.’
The insurgents’ tactics may appear to hark back to quite traditional, low-tech, localized guerrilla movements, but appearances are deceptive. The Taliban clearly have access to modern weaponry, much of it left behind when Soviet troops were forced out of Afghanistan in 1989. And though their ideology may be ultra-traditional, they are quite prepared, as are Al-Qaeda, to make use of all the technological devices and communications of modern living. New wars also blur the previous boundaries between war, organized criminal activity (illegal opium production helps to fund Taliban operations, for example) and human rights violations. The new wars are also globalized conflicts involving an array of external actors such as international bands of mercenaries, military advisers, diaspora volunteers, international NGOs as well as United Nations agencies, the EU, African Union and many more (see Mary Kaldor’s thesis here).
If the conflict in Afghanistan can be correctly described as a new war, then how likely to succeed is the present US / NATO strategy? The increasing calls for the withdrawal of troops are entirely understandable when more than 1,600 coalition soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 (figures here). But this does increase the pressure on NATO’s Operation Moshtarak to achieve a rapid and conclusive end to Taliban influence in Helmand and beyond. From what we know about the globalized character of new wars, their tendency to connect with organized crime and to attract support from sympathizers beyond national boundaries, the prospects of this project don’t look good. If the Taliban does survive as an active force beyond July 2011, the question of whether Western societies are capable of committing their armed forces to the Taliban’s proposed 20-year war will come into much sharper focus.
Chapter 23 covers war and the ‘new war’ thesis and includes an important critique that is not discussed above. However, there is also much useful material on politics and conflict in Chapter 22. Organized crime is discussed on pp. 955-7.