Further written evidence from Oxford Research
ORIGINS OF THE AFGHANISTAN CONFLICT AND THE
CONTINUED PARTICIPATION OF UK ARMED FORCES WITHIN ISAF
1. In announcing an inquiry into operations in
Afghanistan the Committee has indicated its particular interest
in a number of aspects of the conflict. This note from Oxford
Research Group (ORG) relates to the first aspect:
justification for the continued participation of UK Armed Forces
within ISAF and the success of the Government in communicating
this to the UK public.
2. In the autumn of 2001, ORG was one of the
very few independent organisations to undertake an immediate analysis
of the likely consequences of a military reaction to the 9/11
atrocities. Almost uniquely, it argued at the time that a strong
military response was dangerous and most probably counterproductive.
It published a detailed report written in the three weeks following
9/11 that is appended as a supplement to the current note.
3. ORG suggests that the Committee, in examining
the justification for participation, may find it useful to look
to the origins of the conflict and the nature of the original
ORG analysis. That argued that the reaction of the Bush administration
"will be driven very much by the current security
paradigm. Over the next months, and probably years, military action
will seek to destroy the people and supporting network of those
presumed responsible for the atrocities of 11 September, and will
probably seek to destroy the Taliban regime in Kabul. In the view
of the more hard-line security advisers in the Bush administration,
action should also be taken against Iraq and other supporters
of anti-American terrorism."(1)
Crucially, the analysis then argued that:
"For the Bin Laden network and its associates,
such a strong military counter-reaction will have been anticipated
and will almost certainly be welcomed."
It further argued that:
"They will anticipate very forceful military
action and they will expect it to lead to civilian casualties
and huge movements of refugees, to instability in Pakistan, to
an increasing anti-American mood in the Middle East, and to more
support for their own cause."
4. In considering this submission, the Committee
is requested to note that this analysis from Oxford Research Group
is not based on hindsight but was written in September 2001. In
essence, ORG argued at the time that while a forceful military
response to 9/11 was well-nigh certain, it was also deeply mistaken.
Unless this view is taken seriously, ORG would suggest that the
Committee cannot fully consider the matter of "justification
for continued participation". If the action was deeply flawed
and counterproductive from the start, then this most certainly
affects the war in Afghanistan as it enters its 10th year.
5. The al-Qaida movement developed from the late
1980s with its core adherents believing that the mujahidin in
Afghanistan in the 1980s had crippled the Soviet Union - a superpower
that had occupied an Islamic country. By the mid-1990s, the movement
focused on a series of short-term and long-term aims. The former
included opposition to the "near enemy" of unacceptable
regimes in the Middle East that were considered to be corrupt,
pro-western and un-Islamic.
6. The worst of these was Saudi Arabia, with
the Royal House of Saud seen as the entirely unacceptable Keeper
of the Two Holy Places. Al-Qaida also sought the early removal
of "Crusader" (ie American) forces based in the Kingdom.
It was bitterly opposed to Zionism and also offered support for
separatist and other groups in southern Thailand, Chechnya, Indonesia
and elsewhere. These short-term aims were measured in decades
rather than years.
7. The long-term aim was to establish a new kind
of pure Islamist Caliphate, centred initially on the Arab-Islamic
world. This could take up to a century to achieve. An important
point to recognise is that while al-Qaida may be correctly characterised
as a trans-national revolutionary movement, it is also remarkable
in its eschatological dimensions. Rooted in an extreme variant
of one of the world's great religions, it looks to the afterlife.
Its leadership and key adherents do not necessarily expect to
see the movement's aims achieved in their lifetimes. This sets
it apart from most revolutionary movements and even more so from
the much shorter time-scales typical of western political systems.
8. In supporting the Frankfurt-based cell's intention
to attack the United Statesthe "far enemy", the
al-Qaida leadership saw two advantages for the movement. One was
to demonstrate to the wider Islamic world its ability to strike
the heartland of that far enemy, and the second was to bring the
United States into Afghanistan as an occupying force where, in
due course, it would be worn down, as had been the Soviet Union
more than a decade before.
9. In the early months of the Bush administration,
the neo-conservative strand in US politics come to the fore, especially
in relation to foreign and security policy. These months saw
the withdrawal from the Kyoto climate change protocol and opposition
to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the establishment of an
International Criminal Court, ratification of the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty and the strengthening of the Biological and Toxin
10. This formed part of a wider view that the
21st Century had the prospect of being the "New American
Century", with the United States being in the unique position,
as the sole superpower, of leading the world to a peaceful and
stable free market liberal democratic system. While this outlook
was limited to just one part of the US political system it was
particularly influential, the attitude of unilateral exceptionalism
being effectively summarised by Charles Krauthammer:
"Multipolarity, yes, when there is no alternative.
But not when there is. Not when we have the unique imbalance of
power that we enjoy todayand that has given the international
system a stability and essential tranquillity that it had not
known for at least a century.
"The international environment is far more likely
to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just
any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium."(2)
11. By September 2001, this attitude was at the
forefront of the Bush administration's thinking and appeared to
show great promise for the new century. It was against this background
that the 9/11 attacks took place.
12. 9/11 has been seen as a shock to the United
States on a par with Pearl Harbour in December 1941, but this
is a serious underestimation. Pearl Harbour was a military attack
by a potentially belligerent state against a military base far
from the continental United States in the pre-television age.
9/11 was far more immediate and visceral. Given the nature of
the Bush administration it was probably inevitable that the response
would be immediate and forceful.
13. Because of logistic, climatic and other issues,
there was not an immediate US military occupation of Afghanistan
using ground troops. Instead, through a combination of heavy use
of air power, Special Forces and massive support for the Northern
Alliance, the Taliban regime was ousted, although the great majority
of its militias melted away with their armaments intact rather
than experiencing defeat in the conventional sense. Al-Qaida camps
were largely deserted when eventually occupied by US Forces towards
the end of the year.
14. Terminating the Taliban regime through force,
rather than working intensely to bring the al-Qaida leadership
to justice through international legal action, was the first major
mistake of the "war on terror", however understandable,
given the massive shock effect of 9/11. It was followed in quick
succession by two further fundamental errors.
15. The first was to ignore the immediate need
for a major stabilisation force and very high levels of civil
assistance for Afghanistan. In 2001-02, specialists were calling
for an immediate peacekeeping force of 30,000 troops, but
no more than 5,000 were provided, mainly confined to Kabul and
some northern towns. A security vacuum developed over much of
the country, especially in the south and south-east, and within
four years Taliban paramilitaries were re-gaining control of substantial
territory leading to a progressive build-up of foreign military
forces which is now close to 150,000.
16. The second mistake relates very much to this,
and was the decision to extend the narrow "war on terror"
against al-Qaida to a potentially global military conflict against
an "axis of evil", starting with Iraq. If regime termination
in Afghanistan was welcomed by the al-Qaida movement, then regime
termination and the subsequent military occupation of Iraq was
a huge and somewhat unexpected bonus.
17. Indeed, given the extensive Israeli involvement
in the training and equipping of US Forces, particularly from
December 2003 onwards, it was an elementary matter for al-Qaida
propagandists to present this as a "Crusader-Zionist assault
in the heart of the Islamic world". Moreover, since Baghdad
had been the capital of the greatest of the historic Islamic Caliphatesthe
Abbasidsand was now "occupied by the far enemy",
this could be linked to al-Qaida's long-term aim.
18. It is worth noting that the al-Qaida movement
and its many associates became far more active across the world
after its leadership's apparent dispersal and demise in late-2001
Afghanistan. Apart from intense violence in Iraq, Afghanistan
and Pakistan, there have been attacks in Britain, Spain, Morocco,
Tunisia, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India and
Indonesia with attempts in many other countries. Current activity
remains focused in South West Asia, but with substantial western
concerns about Yemen, Somalia and across North Africa.
19. The core issue that the Committee might address
is that the response to 9/11, however understandable in the circumstances,
was fundamentally flawed. In such circumstances, will continuing
military operations in Afghanistan be similarly flawed?
20. Consider the contrast between expectations
and outcomes so far.
21. Following Taliban termination in Afghanistan
in 2001 it was expected that Afghanistan would make a rapid transition
to a peaceful pro-western state with a strategically significant
US military presence at Bagram and Kandahar. The Taliban would
not re-emerge, and the al-Qaida leadership would, in due course
be killed or detained. The stability of Pakistan would be enhanced.
22. Instead the Taliban is reinvigorated and
the nine-year war is escalating in spite of a massive troop surge.
The al-Qaida movement may be diminished but remains active. Security
in Pakistan is problematic.
23. In Iraq, it was confidently expected that
there would be a rapid transition to a peaceful and stable pro-Western
state, with a fully functioning and de-regulated free market economy
involving wholesale privatisation of state assets and buoyed by
abundant oil reserves. Moreover, Iran would be fully constrained,
with strong US influence to its East and West, and the Persian
Gulf and Arabian Sea controlled by the US Fifth Fleet.
24. Instead, Iraq remains deeply unstable after
a seven-year war that has killed over 100,000 civilians, injured
hundreds of thousands more, and resulted in nearly four million
refugees.(3) Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider
region has increased.
25. Given the analysis presented here and on
the supplementary paper, the Committee may wish to consider the
need for a full and fundamental reassessment of the current UK
military commitment in Afghanistan. It may therefore also wish
to investigate alternative policies that might prove less counterproductive
than the original response to the 9/11 atrocities.
(1) Paul Rogers
and Scilla Elworthy, "The United States, Europe and the Majority
World after 11 September", Briefing Paper, October
2001, Oxford Research Group.
(2) Charles Krauthammer,
"The Bush Doctrine: ABM, Kyoto and the New American Unilateralism",
The Weekly Standard, 4 June 2001, Washington DC.
(3) For casualty
figures see Iraq Body count: http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and
for refugee and IDP figures see UNHCR Briefing Note, "UNHCR
Iraq Appeal Seeks $261 Million for 2008", 8 January 2008:
9 September 2010