The conflict in Afghanistan has undergone a number of significant escalations in its long and miserable history. The first was the Soviet invasion in 1979. The latest is to be a surge of the US led coalition's military footprint, which will lead to a significant increase in the coalition's operational tempo in the Afghan theatre. The US looks set to request that Australia also increase its military presence in the region.
The surge led by Obama will be implemented by the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates.
One of the most consequential decisions in the history of the Afghan wars was the US decision, made by the Reagan Administration, to escalate the war in Afghanistan by deliberately facilitating the transfer of Arab Jihadi's to the region in 1986. It was felt that these Arab fighters provided a more hard-core corps of cadres to take the fight to the Soviets, even though it was understood that they had their own agenda.
We now know (PDF 11KB) that the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party, the highest ranking decision making body in the former Soviet Union, made an in-principle decision to withdraw the Soviet Army from Afghanistan on October, 17 1985. On March 14, 1985 the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, informed (PDF 60.5KB) the Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, that a decision of this nature was going to be made in a Kabul meeting. The available account of the October session shows the Soviet military leader, Marshal Sokolov, twice forcefully intervening in favour of a troop withdrawal.
The policy of the United States to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan played a very important role in placing a structural constraint on the Soviet withdrawal, as declassified Soviet documents reveal. This policy merely served to prolong the conflict by helping to delay the implementation of the Politburo's, in principle, decision. It also enabled the Arab Jihadi's to cement their influence in the region.
If the Reagan Administration did not escalate the conflict for short-term ends then most likely the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would not have occurred and nor would have the conditions been ripe for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The desire to pursue short-term strategic gains proved problematic over the longer term.
Robert Gates, then serving as an official in the Reagan Administration, played a key role in this escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
In 1998, the Clinton Administration bombed al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, in retaliation for al-Qaida's terrorist attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Declassified US Clinton era studies reveal that this escalation in the conflict with al-Qaida had far-reaching consequences.
A 1999 Sandia National Laboratory report concluded that the attacks most likely would prove counter-productive and that a "war" against terror cannot be won. The al-Qaida threat needs to be met by diplomatic and political means, the report concluded.
Furthermore, the studies indicate that the US attacks in Afghanistan may have cemented the al-Qaida-Taliban alliance. If so, then the US attacks may have played a significant role in facilitating the 9-11 plot. Declassified State Department documents speak of a turn towards radical pan-Islamic ideology by the senior Taliban leadership during this period.
This additional escalation also proved counter-productive; which is to say nothing of its morality. In fact, the Sandia Report states that the US may have "given up" the "moral high ground" because the missile attacks "mirror imaged certain aspects of bin Laden's strategy".
The Taliban has increased its influence over much of the Pashtun based south of Afghanistan, including in areas around the capital, Kabul. It is assessed that the Taliban has the capability to capture major towns such as Kandahar, but not to hold them in the face of any determined coalition counter-attack. The situation very much resembles a classic strategic stalemate.
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