Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Further written evidence from Oxford Research Group


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:

—  The 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 States—the "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 Weapons Convention.

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 today—and 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 Caliphates—the Abbasids—and 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: http://www.unhcr.org/print/478357184.html

Paul Rogers

9 September 2010

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Prepared 17 July 2011