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An expanding horizon of conflict

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 April 2002

US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s efforts to restrain Sharon have so far achieved no more than a tentative plan for a regional peace conference. Two suicide bombings and the underlying determination of the Sharon government to take the military route, no matter how counter-productive, have ensured that Israeli forces remain throughout most of the West Bank. How Sharon will act after Powell returns to Washington will give some indication of the extent of his determination, especially if he sends troops into Hebron and even into Gaza.

A wide swathe of international opinion across Europe sees Sharon’s policy as potentially damaging to the State of Israel itself, further radicalising Palestinian and wider Arab opinion, especially as the extent of the damage and casualties in Jenin and other towns and cities becomes apparent. There is deep unease also in Jewish communities across the West, as concern over Sharon’s harsh measures conflicts with worry for the future of Israel.

The extent of Sharon’s support within Israel has caused surprise among many observers, but it comes within a context that makes it understandable, at least to an extent. Until recently, and with only two exceptions, Israel’s many conflicts with the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states have caused few casualties to the Israelis themselves.

Can Israel win?

The first month of the War of Independence in 1948 was costly, but the war ended a few months later with the new state making substantial gains in territory. Suez in 1956, and especially the Six Day War in 1967, resulted in huge Arab losses at little cost, as did the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In the latter case, Israel eventually withdrew from most of Lebanon, having lost five hundred soldiers over a three year period, but the Arab losses were more than twenty times as great.

Only in the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of October 1973 did the Israelis sustain major casualties, and that was one of the factors that resulted in a political shift to the right and the access to power of Likud four years later.

In the past few months Israel has experienced repeated loss of life through individual shootings, ambushes and, above all, the suicide bombs. There is no direct way to counter the latter, and they have given rise to a degree of anxiety that is pervading the country. In part, this is because the hundreds of people who have died are drawn from a small country and the bombers strike at the heart of the major cities, but there is also the factor of the sheer unpredictability of the attacks, leading to a deeply unsettling mood.

The response, with Sharon in charge, hard-line politicians joining the cabinet and Netanyahu waiting in the wings, is a willingness to use force that comes from a single-minded political determination combined with a public mood that will back almost any strategy of force, no matter how deeply flawed and dangerous.

What is beyond comprehension in much of Israeli society is the effect of these actions on Palestinian society. After thirty – five years of occupation, the encroachment of settlements, the building of strategic roads, abstraction of water supplies, appropriation of land and all of the other features of occupation, the Intifada is being met with the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, wholesale damage to dwellings and shops, and the deaths of well over one thousand people.

This is in a population that is even smaller than that of Israel, that now has a standard of living much less than one tenth of that of Israel, has rampant unemployment, and is experiencing a degree of control that is akin to a huge open prison. Even so, and based on past experience and recent information, all the signs are that the Israeli action will serve only to harden Palestinian resolve, to further radicalise opinion and produce many more thousands of young people prepared to respond with force.

Israel has a degree of conventional military power massively superior to that of the Palestinians, yet its very policy of settlements through the occupied territories means that it cannot retreat into a heavily defended heartland. It is therefore vulnerable to asymmetric attack that will result in a further cycle of violence.

In such circumstances, it is possible that domestic opinion in Israel will eventually turn away from current policies, but it is all too easy for Sharon to direct opinion towards further support for his military action. It may therefore be up to external actors to force a change, but there is little sign of the determination in Washington that would be required.

A new politics of extremism?

Perhaps Mr Powell’s repeated experience of the anger expressed in the Arab capitals he has visited will have an effect. But that is unlikely unless European states are far more forceful in their dealings with Washington, or the Arab states decide to use their leverage in terms of their control over oil and the military facilities they extend to the US across the region.

Many years too late, the Saudi peace plan adopted by the Arab League offered unequivocal recognition of Israel and its right to exist if it withdrew from the occupied territories. Sharon promptly ordered his assault upon them, as if to declare that he had no interest in any peace authored by the Arabs but only one imposed by Israel itself.

But it may be that such an Israeli attitude relies upon the Arab states in another way: that they will remain pliant regimes of America’s overall dominance in the region. However, Israeli intransigence and Palestinian losses may greatly increase the popularity and support for Bin Laden style anti-Americanism.

These weekly columns have consistently argued that al-Qaida has been seeking to provoke escalation from which it believes it will indeed benefit over time. Should the Saudi royal family feel genuinely threatened domestically by the appeal of Bin Laden they may seek to outflank it by turning more forcefully against Washington. The Palestinians can hardly afford to pin their hopes on such a prospect, but a new politics of extremism in the age of globalisation may break open Arab societies whose closure has hitherto been essential to their weakness.

Afghanistan remains

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, al-Qaida continues to regroup. Early last month, US special forces and Afghan allies staged Operation Anaconda, high in the mountains in Eastern Afghanistan, near the town of Gardez. As the name implies, the intention was to constrict a substantial group of many hundreds of Taliban/al-Qaida guerrillas, capturing or killing them. In the event, the US forces suffered substantial casualties, the loss of two helicopters and damage to several more, and most of the guerrillas were able to escape.

Other features of Anaconda were that it had been planned for some time as a result of intelligence that the guerrilla forces were re-grouping, and that they were joined by local people opposed to what was seen as western interference in their country.

Even so, the word from Washington (and London) was that this operation was no more than a ‘mopping up’ operation, part of a process of finally defeating the remaining Taliban and al-Qaida elements in Afghanistan. This contrasted markedly with the views of some independent analysts who were prone to point to the idea that the Taliban had, by and large, chosen to withdraw during the war the previous autumn, rather than face destruction by US air attacks and associated action by the Northern Alliance.

Such analysts also took the view that the Taliban had melted back into their own communities, either in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan and that there were probably very few al-Qaida fighters even in Afghanistan after 11 September.

The extent of the Anaconda action and the ferocity of the guerrilla attacks seemed to support this alternative analysis – if this was truly just part of a mopping up operation, that it was trying to deal with a sizeable flood.

What was clear was that a more accurate indication of the extent of opposition to US and coalition control would be more likely to come with the onset of spring and summer. In anticipation of increased action, the US persuaded Britain to commit one thousand seven hundred troops, many of them commando specialists in mountain warfare, and elements of this group started their military operations a few days ago.

This alone indicates perceptions of substantial problems ahead, with indications of a substantial increase in guerrilla activity in the east of the country. On 13 April, rocket-propelled grenades were launched against a US – controlled airfield near Kost, and there were further explosions the following night. A joint US – Afghan patrol had also come under attack on 13 April, following an earlier attack the previous day. Although there were no US casualties reported and five of the guerrilla force were reported killed, these actions indicate a resurgence of military activity.

What is perhaps much more indicative is that, in all four cases, it was the guerrilla forces that initiated the attacks, rather than responding to US ‘mopping up’. Military spokespeople persist in claiming that there are no more than a few hundred guerrillas active in the whole of the country, but this seems implausible in the extreme.

A state of disorder

Over the next three months we will get a clearer indication of whether a longer – lasting guerrilla war is beginning to develop, but the early signs are that it is. Moreover, Afghanistan remains substantially in a state of disorder, despite the efforts of the Karzai administration. Attempted assassinations, bomb attacks, shooting at ISAF patrols and warfare between local warlords are all features of the current scene.

They indicate that UN estimates of the need for a stabilisation force of at least thirty thousand can hardly be too many, but there is no political will to deploy such a force. The end result is a degree of instability away from Kabul that will make it much easier for Taliban units to operate, and much more difficult for any kind of unified government to exert control. In such circumstances, protracted military action involving US, British and other coalition forces should not come as any great surprise in the coming months.

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