Al-Qaida’s new terrain
The successes of a new generation of jihadi militants in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that the United States is losing the first phase of its long war.
On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush once again conflated the war in Iraq into the global war on terror, declaring that victory in Iraq was essential to the safety of America: "Today we are safer but we are not yet safe".
On the same day, Osama bin Laden's deputy and strategist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, declared that al-Qaida would open up new fronts in the Gulf and against Israel, warning the United States not to waste its time in Iraq and Afghanistan where it was facing defeat.
When the rhetoric from both speeches is stripped away, it was evident that President Bush was determined to highlight the dangers of al-Qaida in the run-up to the midterm elections to Congress in November 2006, and al-Zawahiri was equally determined not to allow al-Qaida to be sidelined by Hizbollah's war with Israel in southern Lebanon. His claim of imminent American defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan might be greatly exaggerated, yet many recent developments suggest that it contains elements of reality.
Afghanistan in turmoil
Earlier columns in this series have pointed to the renewed campaign by Taliban and other militias in Afghanistan, predicting a further upsurge in violence during the course of the year (see "Afghanistan's endemic war", 25 May 2006, and "Afghanistan's war season", 22 June 2006). What appeared to be a pessimistic analysis then has since proved, if anything, to be an underestimate of the power of the revitalised Taliban, leading Tony Blair and others to make urgent appeals for 2,500 additional Nato troops as reinforcements for the hard-pressed forces now in the country.
It is worth remembering that there are already 36,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. 19,000 Americans are supported by special forces from Britain, France and several other countries in their long-lasting counter-insurgency campaign in the east of the country, and 17,000 NATO troops of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) are elsewhere in the country, including large contingents in the south.
The problems for the British troops working as part of Isaf in Helmand province have been particularly severe as an intended "hearts and minds" reconstruction mission has turned into a violent counterinsurgency operation. This has now moved on to the point where isolated British garrisons face near-constant attacks and may well have to be withdrawn to secure bases.
Far from providing an environment for reconstruction and development, the British, Canadian, Dutch and other forces are forced repeatedly to call in air power to counter the determined and repeated assaults, not from small groups of paramilitaries but frequently from formations more than a hundred strong. As a graphic account from one British soldier puts it
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