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Published on open Democracy News Analysis (http://www.opendemocracy.


Afghanistan: the wrong target

By Paul Rogers
Created 2009-08-15 23:39

The war in Afghanistan is intensifying and diversifying as the country's presidential election [1]
on 20 August 2009 approaches. Most western media coverage tends to focus on the Nato/Isaf
military operations in Helmand province, and tends as a result to miss the extent of incidents
across [2] the country.

These have included in the early days of August 2009 alone: Paul Rogers is professor in
rocket-attacks in Kabul, a sustained assault on government the department of peace
offices [5] in Pul-i-Alam, an attack on a government base [6] in studies [3] at Bradford
the northern province of Kunduz, a remote-controlled bomb in University, northern
the country's west (killing two police-officers), and the ambush England. He has been
[7] of Korean road-engineers (killing one of their drivers). writing a weekly column on
global security on
The ability of the apparently dispersed paramilitary groups to openDemocracy since 26
coordinate actions [8] in different parts of Afghanistan [9] is as September 2001
notable as their military sophistication. When, for example,
United States troops moved into Helmand province in early July Bradford's peace-studies
2009 in the effort to control Taliban activity in the movement's department now broadcasts
heartland, there was a striking response: a frontal assault on an regular podcasts on its work,
American base hundreds of kilometres away in eastern including a regular
Afghanistan by scores of paramilitaries equipped with a range of commentary from Paul
weapons, including artillery firing white-phosphorus [10] shells. Rogers on international-
There was combat lasting several hours in which two American security issues. Listen/watch
soldiers were killed [11] and others wounded; only extensive air- here [4]
strikes saved the base from being overrun (see "Afghanistan's
twisting path [11]", 9 July 2009).

It remains a very unequal fight. The sheer scale of the current US (and to a lesser extent British)
assaults [12] in Helmand is extraordinary. The coalition forces are equipped with a range of
helicopters, mine-resistant vehicles, strike-aircraft and drones. Even with all this, the early
indications are of little more than some clearance [13] of paramilitary elements along the
Helmand river; there is no indication of any significant leaders having been killed or detained.
Moreover, the targeting of US forces by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially
roadside-bombs, continues (see Ann Scott Tyson "Potent Bombs Slow Marine Offensive [14]",
Washington Post, 11 August 2009).

Beyond the election

The Taliban's intensifying military assaults suggest that the movement is looking to do far more
than disrupt the presidential election. The incumbent Hamid Karzai [15] is pursuing [16] to renew
the mandate he won in 2004 at the very time when allegations of the corruption and
maladministration swirling around his regime are mounting (see Ben Farmer, "Karzai family's

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wealth ‘fuelling insurgency' [17]", Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2009). The election may have
something of a positive impact on Afghanistan if it ends with Karzai being obliged to incorporate
the effective technocrat Ashraf Ghani [17] - a key US priority, which indicates the power that
Washington wields in Kabul (see Joshua Partlow, "U.S. Officials Looking at Karzai Rival for Key
New Post [18]", Washington Post, 11 August 2009); though Ghani would have a tough job to
reverse the tides [19] of corruption.

Whatever the result, the military front will remain a deep concern for Washington. General
Stanley McChrystal [20], the top US commander in the country, is about to deliver to the Barack
Obama administration his proposals for a revised military strategy [21] in Afghanistan. There are
reports from Washington suggesting that these will include a further increase in US troop levels
as the Afghanistan campaign becomes the central feature [22] of the Obama administration's
international-security policy.

In addition to his weekly

McChrystal played a significant role in charge of special forces openDemocracy column,
in the Iraq war, where he was much concerned [27] with the Paul Rogers writes an
specific targeting of insurgent leaders (an approach seen too in international security
the Israeli operations in Gaza [27] of January 2009). Against monthly briefing for the
critics who define this as a policy of targeted assassinations, the Oxford Research Group
policy is justified in US military circles as a legitimate tactic in a [23]; for details, click here
bitter war. The same argument is used to justify the widespread [24]
(and equally deadly [28]) use of armed drones in west Pakistan
and southern Afghanistan (see "Drone wars [28]", 16 April Paul Rogers's books include
2009). Why We're Losing the War
on Terror [25] (Polity, 2007)
In this respect a key decision has been taken, even in advance
- an analysis of the strategic
of McChrystal's report: to extend the scope of targeted killings
misjudgments of the post-9/
beyond the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership to key figures in
11 era and why a new
Afghanistan's illicit heroin industry.
security paradigm is
needed. A third edition of his
A defining moment
Losing Control: Global
Security in the 21st Century
The production of raw opium remains a huge problem [29] for
[26] (Pluto Press, 2009) is
the western forces in Afghanistan, not least as much of the
insurgency's fuelled by drug-money (amounting perhaps to $70
million per year). The country produces more than 90% of the world's illicit opium; much of the
resulting revenue undoubtedly goes to the Taliban and other paramilitary groups, as well as
fuelling corruption at every level of the Kabul government.

A significant trend in the post-2001 years has increased the coalition's difficulty [30] in this area.
A decade ago, most of the raw opium-paste was transported out of Afghanistan in that form -
only a small proportion was refined within the country into heroin and morphine, which were
worth far more and were much easier to transport. Today, most of the opium-paste is refined in
the country, in large numbers of small facilities that are very difficult to spot.

The repeated military-led attempts to disrupt the trade have focused on destroying the poppies
while encouraging Afghan farmers to grow other crops. There has been some progress -
Afghanistan [31] may be self-sufficient in wheat production in 2009 for the first time in decades -
but the overall results of the anti-poppy campaign are at best patchy [32]. In part that is because
this is a product that pays far better than other crops (such as wheat [33]); in part because such
drops frequently depend on irrigation, and Afghan rural areas lack the infrastructure to ensure
reliable supplies of water [34] during any periods of drought.

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In addition, poppy-cultivation is very much a smallholder operation in which hundreds of
thousands of farmers and their families depend [35] on it for their livelihood. A common pattern
is for farmers to be offered credit by drug- middlemen, ensuring that they continue to produce
[36] the raw opium.

The new US strategy is to pursue [37] those important drug-operators who are believed to have
links with the paramilitaries. So far, fifty traffickers have been so identified and placed on the
"joint integrated prioritised target list". A report of the Senate's foreign-relations committee
published [38] on 10 August 2009 suggests that this will mean "the military places no restriction
on the use of force against these targets" (see James Risen, "U.S. places Afghan drug
traffickers on target list [39]", International Herald Tribune, 10 August 2009).

This may prove to be a defining moment in the entire Afghan war, yet there has been almost no
comment on its legality (a rare exception is the contribution by Steve Rolles of the Transform
Drug Policy Foundation [40]; see his reference [41] to "the fact that extrajudicial killings are
illegal under international law", Guardian, 12 August 2009).

The rare combination of a relatively enlightened administration in the United States and a
democratic [42] election in Afghanistan might be expected to offer a way forward for the country
beyond continued war and destruction. Yet at this very moment, a measure [43] of dubious
legality and dangerous effect is being introduced that will spread violence even more widely.
Amid Afghanistan's existing sea of troubles, it is not a happy prospect.

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