Seven years after terrorists struck at the symbol of American might – the World Trade Centre and Pentagon – and the questionable war against terrorism began, Afghanistan remains in the grip of ever mounting violence and in the clutches of leading members of the anti-terror coalition in the form of a 20-member Policy Advisory Group (PAG) comprising nine Afghan ministers/advisors with about an equal number of foreign diplomats and internationals (US, Nato and ISAF officials). The Karzai government remains hamstrung as far as vital security, financial and foreign affairs are concerned.
The Kabul-based US Political counselor leads the international coalition in the PAG, assisted by Political Adviser to CIMISAF/NATO, and several leading diplomats to discuss security situation assessment, auxiliary police initiative, update on joint security plan Kabul, ministerial visits abroad, updates on situation in Kandahar and Helmand, and sharing updated strategic communication messages.
The composition of the PAG makes it quite evident that the questionable war against terrorism has turned Afghanistan into a hotbed of competing interests. While the Western allies act in unison to pursue their objectives here, countries like Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan watch in awe as to what this extended western engagement means for them in the long run.
With the violence, that has claimed some 3,800 lives including some 200 foreign troops in the first eight months of this year, steadily surging by the year, the US plans to induct more troops for combat operations. “We envisage a 122,000-strong structure, with a total of 134,000 personnel, the extra 12,000 allowing to keep a lot of people in school and training,” Major General Robert Cone, in charge of helping to train the Afghan army, said recently in Brussels.
Currently, close to 71,000 foreign troops drawn from 40 countries, including 34,000 from the US, are based in Afghanistan to quell the Taliban insurgency, backed up by 60,000 strong Afghan National Army with 8,000 under training, and some 76,000 national police, both inadequately trained though. Of the 34,000 US troops in Afghanistan, 19,000 operate under US Central Command, and the rest are placed under the NATO-led international force.
NATO and Afghan officials say violence overall in eastern Afghanistan has been up by 20 to 30 per cent in the first eight months of the year compared with last year’s figures, and rose about 50 per cent in some areas, if compared with 2007 statistics.
In addition to the combat brigade of about 3,500 to 4,000 troops, US officials also plan to withdraw about 2,000 non-combat support personnel from Iraq and transfer about 1,300 Marines from Iraq’s Anbar province to western Afghanistan.
Some in the Pentagon had been pushing for a faster and larger reduction of combat forces from Iraq and a more aggressive troop buildup in Afghanistan. They preferred withdrawing as many as three combat brigades so that additional forces could be sent to Afghanistan before the end of the year.
It certainly doesn’t augur well, neither for Afghanistan nor for Pakistan because more troops would attract more adverse reaction by locals and militants alike, and that would mean more military engagement in the troubled zones, particularly the border regions. A reinforced US contingent means greater latitude to operate and manhunt for militants wherever suspicion arises. This brings with it the danger of exposing the civilian population to an army that has largely moved with immunity inside Afghanistan, and of late in Pakistani border areas. The physical raid in Angoor Adda on September 3 and at least four missile strikes within the first week of this month, provide ample evidence of what a spike in US army numbers could mean for the region.
A Washington Post report (August 28, 2008) also highlights the implications of an operation that is guided and governed by a two-page “diplomatic note,” giving thereby US forces virtual carte blanche to conduct operations as they see fit.
The note delves into arcane issues such as customs duties and driver licences. It devotes only a few sentences to “the conduct of ongoing military operations,” giving US troops “a status equivalent” to diplomatic immunity and exempting them from any Afghan “disciplinary authority” or legal jurisdiction.
“Although President Bush pledged in a 2005 declaration signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to develop appropriate arrangements and agreements formally spelling out the terms of the US troop presence and other bilateral ties, no such agreements were drawn up.”
Yet a recent US-led air strike in Heraat late August that killed up to 90 civilians — most of them children — President Karzai has publicly called for a review of all foreign forces in Afghanistan and a formal “status of forces agreement,” along the lines of an accord being negotiated between the United States and Iraq.
The prospect of codifying the ad hoc rules under which US forces have operated in Afghanistan since late 2001 sends shudders through the Bush administration, which has struggled to finalize its agreement with Baghdad. “It’s never been done because the issues have been too big to surmount,” said one US official who was not authorized to discuss the subject on the record. “The most diplomatic way of saying it is that there are just a lot of moving parts,” the official told the Washington Post.
Although, most civilian war deaths in Afghanistan are caused by Taliban forces, those resulting from the highly visible air strikes are a particular cause of public outrage that neither Karzai nor the administration can afford to ignore.
“The disparate command structures have frustrated every government involved in the effort, but according to Afghan officials, they have also allowed diffused responsibility for civilian casualties, such as those of last week in the western part of the country. US forces operate up to 90 per cent of all strike aircraft in the country, and it is rarely clear whether an individual strike has been conducted as part of a NATO or US operation.”
The UN mandate for NATO serves as a de facto status-of-forces agreement. The protection and authority it gives, however, do not apply to the separate US force, which is covered under the diplomatic note exchanged between the United States and a non-elected, interim Afghan government in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001.
Similar legal immunity is included in US status-of-forces agreements with more than 80 countries. But it has become the biggest roadblock to the conclusion of an accord with Baghdad, and US officials say Karzai has taken his cues from the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Civilian casualties, a recurring problem in Afghanistan, tripled last year as thinly spread US and NATO forces grew more dependent on air power against a resurgent Taliban. Although the number of civilian deaths attributed to international forces during combat on the ground has remained relatively static at fewer than 100 each year, casualties due to air strikes have reached more than 200 through the first eight months of this year, compared with 321 in 2007 and 116 in 2006.
According to the US Air Forces Central Combined Air and Space Operations Center, the number of strikes this year in which munitions were dropped totaled 2,368 as of August 4. The equivalent number for the same period in Iraq was 783. The statistics for Afghanistan do not distinguish between strikes on behalf of NATO and those part of separate US operations, usually air support called in by Special Operations teams during engagements with Taliban forces.
In the last week of August alone, coalition troops killed more than 220 suspected Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan yet not without collateral damage; several operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants have also resulted in over 500 civilian deaths, including 96 casualties in an air raid by the US-led coalition in western Heart late August. The wave of protests over such deaths in Herat and in Helmand province compelled President Hamid Karzai to order a review of foreign troops’ conduct in Afghanistan.
The civilian toll also prompted Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, to warn NATO-led coalition forces, including Britain, that rules of engagement need to be revised or the coalition risks losing the war.
There was a worrying but growing perception among Afghans that the foreign forces were responsible for ‘indiscriminate killings’ and ‘mass rape’.
“The struggle in Afghanistan is quintessentially at a point where popular support is crucial,” Alston said. “My view is that it is being significantly undermined by the strong perception among the Afghan public that the allied forces are killing significant numbers of civilians with no accountability at all, even if that perception is exaggerated.”
NATO’s military command needed to alter its approach if it was to win popular support and triumph, said Alston who also accused officials of blocking his attempts to discover details of the rules of engagement under which NATO troops were fighting. Continued turmoil in Afghanistan spells trouble for Pakistan as well; most US military intelligence makes no secret of the fact the roots of violence in Afghanistan lie in FATA. The intensified military campaign from across the border into Pakistani territories explains how the American forces want to counter those threats.