Situation Deteriorating Rapidly in Afghanistan 28 August 2002
Recent reports indicate the Taliban and al Qaeda are
regrouping in preparation for a major escalation of fighting in Afghanistan.
Moreover, STRATFOR has received intelligence that resistance to U.S. forces in
Afghanistan has spread well beyond these groups, threatening a steep increase in
fighting over the coming months.
The editor of
London's Al-Quds Al-Arabi magazine, Abdel-Bari Atwan, who reportedly is close to
associates of Osama bin Laden, told Reuters Aug. 27 that bin Laden is firmly
back in control of a regrouped and reorganized al Qaeda. He said the shock and
disruption of the initial U.S. attack against the group has worn off and that al
Qaeda has regained confidence, re-established ties with the Taliban and is
preparing for a protracted war of attrition in Afghanistan.
the airing by the Middle East Broadcasting Co. July 9 of a message --
purportedly from an al Qaeda spokesman -- warning of impending guerrilla warfare
and assassinations. The statement claimed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar
was alive and well and that the Taliban was reorganizing and preparing for
In the absence of any major attacks since Sept. 11,
Afghanistan presents a prime venue for demonstrating that both organizations are
operational and capable of inflicting serious damage on the United States. A
renewed war there also plays to both groups' strengths and
Afghanistan offers all the communications, logistics, support,
cover and terrain familiarity these groups lack elsewhere. Both groups say the
Afghan resistance in the 1980s was responsible not only for repulsing the Soviet
invasion but also for contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
They will jump at the opportunity to trap another superpower in the same
Osama bin Laden has said that al Qaeda was preparing for a
decade-long campaign in Somalia, akin to the Afghan precedent, when U.S. troops
precipitously withdrew after a disastrous mission in 1993.
war in Afghanistan also offers al Qaeda a much higher chance of immediate and
repeated success against U.S. targets than complex bombing operations abroad. It
allows the group to strike again quickly without having to sort out its
international financial and communications networks or trust that its sleeper
agents have not been compromised.
Put Up or Shut Up
Both al Qaeda
and the Taliban need to strike visibly and soon, as they are beginning to lose
credibility among their followers. Repeated al Qaeda warnings of imminent
attacks have been followed by little or no action.
On July 15 Atwan told
Reuters that bin Laden was alive but that he would not appear again until his
followers attacked the United States. He cited al Qaeda sources as saying that
an attack would come soon to exploit Arab anger over U.S. actions in support of
Israel and against Iraq.
In a July 9 interview with the Algerian
newspaper Al Youm, al Qaeda chief spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said al Qaeda
were men of action, not words, and that the group was casing American and Jewish
targets in the United States and abroad and would strike again soon. He also
claimed al Qaeda would attack the "puppet government" of Afghan President Hamid
Even earlier on June 2, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat published an
assertion by Abu Ghaith that an attack was coming soon, as great as that which
had come before.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan are easier
for al Qaeda and the Taliban to strike than American targets in the United
States or abroad. The intelligence war is in the militants' favor in
Afghanistan, given that they can blend in with the local populace.
militants apparently have penetrated U.S. operations as well. A recently
completed campaign called Operation Mountain Sweep turned up little, amid
suspicions that the militants had been tipped off to U.S. and coalition plans.
U.S. and British troops stationed at Bagram Air Base are under orders to destroy
items identifying their families, as the base is believed to be penetrated by al
Qaeda sympathizers. Hundreds of Afghans work in the camp, and an al Qaeda
spokesman said July 9 that the group had succeeded in penetrating its enemies'
The militants enjoy shelter inside Afghanistan as well as in
neighboring Pakistan and Iran. They have internal lines of supply and ample
weapons caches. In a July 24 Pentagon press briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. John
W. Rosa Jr. summed up the situation when he said, "almost anyplace we go, we
find some type of weapons."
At the same time, U.S. counterterrorist
efforts in the United States and abroad continue to disrupt al Qaeda's global
communications, transportation and logistics networks, and the group cannot be
sure their operatives remain hidden. Al Qaeda will continue to attempt attacks
inside the United States, but it cannot count on success there the way it can in
Worse than Reported
U.S. forces inside Afghanistan
already are under constant attack, and according to multiple sources are taking
more casualties than are officially admitted.
Sources in the Afghan
government said guerrillas, believed to be Pushtun Taliban members, attacked
U.S. troops in the Zawar region of Paktia province on the night of Aug. 4, with
several U.S. troops and several attackers allegedly killed. The Pentagon report
of the same incident confirmed that a patrol came under heavy fire at that time
in Paktia province but said that only two attackers were killed.
Similarly, Afghan government sources reported that a rocket attack on a
U.S. air base at Jalalabad airport Aug. 28 resulted in casualties among U.S. and
allied Afghan troops. However, the U.S. military reported there were no
An Afghan government source also reported that more than 110
U.S. troops have gone missing in Afghanistan since October, the majority
presumed dead. And a U.S. military source told STRATFOR that U.S. troops are
suffering frequent casualties including fatalities that are going largely
unreported in the press.
STRATFOR's military sources in countries around
Afghanistan have repeated similar accounts for some time: that there is more to
many of the reported incidents, and still more clashes are not being reported at
all. Sources in Russian and Indian intelligence separately estimate the U.S.
military has suffered between 300 and 400 killed in Afghanistan, with an unknown
number wounded. The Pentagon says substantially fewer than 100 have been killed.
Although foreign estimates may be inflated, there is no way to independently
confirm U.S. claims either.
Sources say there are nightly attacks on
U.S. troops, which is confirmed by non-governmental organizations in the
country, who add that increased restrictions have been placed on the movements
of off-duty U.S. forces. U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where
they have bases, and then only in daylight, while the Karzai government
reportedly controls only parts of Kabul.
The militants are moving their
campaigns into the cities as well. Kabul residents told Reuters the security
situation has deteriorated in recent weeks. The assassination of Afghan Vice
President Haji Abdul Qadir July 6 prompted the U.S. military to take over
security for Karzai.
Security forces intercepted a car packed with
explosives July 29 and arrested a foreign national who admitted to plotting to
use the car bomb to kill Karzai and other officials. On Aug. 15 a small bomb
exploded outside the Communications Ministry in Kabul, while five days later,
Afghan security forces found a bomb in a bazaar shop half a kilometer from the
Sources in the Afghan
government report two worrisome trends. First, resistance to U.S. forces and the
Karzai government, previously confined to Kandahar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika
provinces, has spread over the summer to nearly all majority Pushtun
These include, but are not limited to, Oruzgan, Helmand, Kunar
and Nangarhar. The decision to fight the United States has reportedly been made
by local leaders who have little or nothing to do with either the Taliban or al
Widespread hatred of U.S. forces has reportedly been exacerbated
by indiscriminately belligerent behavior of U.S. troops and by incidents such as
the July 1 accidental bombing of a wedding party in Oruzgan. NGOs are distancing
themselves from U.S. military in anticipation of a backlash, according to the
British daily The Independent.
Second, some Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara
field commanders are reportedly seriously considering targeting U.S. forces.
Additionally Afghan sources confirm that the Taliban has sealed a partnership
with militant group Hezb-i-Islami, and the two groups' forces began operating
together this month.
Soviet Experience Revisited
The result of all
this is an accelerating deterioration of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan
toward that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. As in the Soviet case, it took a
year for the opposition to coalesce, spreading slowly across the country's
various factions. The gradual strengthening of the rebel forces was then
followed by attacks on the Soviets' Afghan allies, who presented soft targets.
This forced the Soviet troops to take charge of security operations themselves,
destroying the illusion of partnership with a local regime. The pattern is
The next phase is a protracted war of attrition, with
U.S. troops venturing from garrisons to face ambushes on the highways, in
villages and in the mountains. This is not nay-saying pessimism. This is the
situation on the ground.
U.S. and Afghan officials both admit now that
U.S. troops will be in the country "for years." There are now about 16,000 U.S.
and coalition troops in the Afghanistan area of operations. The Soviet
deployment reached 118,000 at its peak and was still able to control no more
than the towns it occupied.
One striking difference between the U.S. and Soviet experience remains. The
Soviets could not attack the Mujahideen bases in Pakistan for fear of sparking
a broader war with the United States. Washington does not fear retaliation from
a superpower if it strikes inside Pakistan, and it will have to strike there
if it is to have any better luck in Afghanistan. But expanding the campaign
into Pakistan could bring down the government in Islamabad, leaving the United
States at war across both countries at once. Perhaps Moscow got off easy.