Although there is now little press reporting of the ongoing war, it would appear that a number of al-Qaida units are still active in Afghanistan, even though most have long since gone through to Pakistan. What is surprising is that there is still military action involving Taliban militia, whereas the expectation had been that they would have melted back into their own villages and towns, at least until the spring.
In early January, US bombers made repeated raids on an underground complex in eastern Afghanistan near the village of Zawar, and marines from the base at Kandahar discovered a much smaller underground network close to the base itself.
On 24 January, special forces attacked two al-Qaida compounds about 60 miles north of Kandahar. Initially they were reported to have killed more than a dozen people while capturing al-Qaida and Taliban militia, but later reports indicated that they had mistakenly attacked a compound containing anti-Taliban leaders who had actually been negotiating a surrender with local Taliban militia. In the attack, villagers of Hazar Qadam insisted that 15 pro-government local leaders had been killed.
Refugees, lawlessness and unexploded bombs
Earlier predictions of lawlessness and refugee movements as a consequence of the war are, sadly, being proved right. In mid-January there were reports of at least 50,000 people camped either side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, most of them in desperate conditions.
They form part of a much larger number of displaced people, thought to number 700,000 in the southern part of Afghanistan, with many of them fleeing robbery, banditry and the near-collapse of any semblance of law and order.
Added to this is the problem of unexploded ordnance, particularly the bomblets from cluster munitions that have been widely used by US strike aircraft. While efforts are being made by UN de-mining groups to find and defuse these bomblets, their location is often unclear and they are even light enough to be carried into streams and rivers by heavy winter rain.
In the Herat area alone, 41 people have been killed and a similar number injured since the cluster bombs were dropped in November. A further problem is that the presence of unexploded bomblets in any rural area serves as a considerable discouragement to farmers to work the land, especially when it comes to ploughing and sowing seeds for the new growing season.
The international presence
Fairly substantial international aid is now promised to the Karzai administration in Kabul, although it falls far short of what most independent analysts believe is required to restore Afghanistan to some degree of normality. In Kabul itself, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is beginning to establish itself, with its prime functions being to aid security in Kabul, develop future security structures and assist with reconstruction.
ISAF will, though, operate only in Kabul itself, and will have little or no effect on the much wider problems of disorder and lawlessness that are plaguing much of the country. The UN deputy special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, is reported as saying that about 30,000 peacekeeping troops would be needed to maintain order in the country as a whole, far more than the small ISAF group committed to the Kabul area.
This force of 5,000 troops is to be drawn from an extraordinary range of countries, with Britain providing the lead with 1,800 troops, including the headquarters, followed by Germany (800), France (550), and Italy and Spain (300 each). The Netherlands and Greece follow with about 100 each, followed by smaller numbers from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania and Sweden. The only Islamic state to provide troops is Turkey (260), although states such as Jordan are providing humanitarian assistance.
Quite separate from ISAF are the combat forces now working alongside the US. Britain had special forces involved in Afghanistan almost from the start, but Australia, Canada, France, Norway and New Zealand have also had small contingents involved. More surprisingly, Canada has now committed a 750-strong combat group to work with elements of the US 101st Airborne Division based at Kandahar.
So it is almost entirely western states that are operating in Afghanistan. The absence of troops from Islamic states will strengthen the impression that there is a religious divide in Bushs war on terrorism. Within this situation, there are some unexpected political aspects, the most significant being the role of the French.
The French move in
Many commentators have remarked on the manner in which the United States has developed its military presence in the region since 11 September, with a chain of bases across South West and Central Asia. Almost as significant, but largely missed, is the rapid increase in the French military presence in many different guises.
Their contingent in the ISAF currently numbers about 200 out of the planned total of 550; but a commando force of around 50 marines is also based in the Kabul area, apparently not part of ISAF. Over in Mazar-i-Sharif, the French have 240 troops engaged in airport reconstruction and offering protection to a field hospital established by a Jordanian medical unit.
French forces are supported by a transport unit of C-130 and C-160 aircraft based in Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and the French government has reached an agreement with Kyrgyzstan to base strike aircraft and tankers at a base there. It is seeking agreement for a similar basing arrangement in Uzbekistan. France has also been involved in maritime reconnaissance flights using land-based aircraft. The logistics operation for its Asian regional commitments is the Villacoublay Air Force Base near Paris.
Meanwhile, a large French naval force is operating in the Arabian Sea, providing most of the 4,200-strong force supporting US operations. Centred on the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, and supported by three frigates, a nuclear-powered submarine, minesweepers and support ships, the task forces aircraft had, by mid-January, completed 200 aircraft sorties and had stopped and searched over 400 ships.
The Charles de Gaulle normally carries a force of 16 Super Etandard strike aircraft but has recently embarked several of the new Rafale fighters that are likely to be used operationally for the first time over Afghanistan.
The official French line is that all of the forces are there in support of the United States. Independent observers see it rather differently, as more of a traditional French approach: making abundantly sure that France has a sufficient piece of the action, as Central Asia is opened up to stronger western influence.
A strong French presence has at least two political advantages - it positions France in a region with considerable resource potential, and it gives a firm impression of a commitment to the US war on terrorism while helping to ensure that the United States is not the only state to increase its influence in the region.
Saudi American tensions
The recent press reports of strong differences of opinion between Saudi Arabia and the United States are not unexpected, but they represent a serious problem for Washington, given that Saudi Arabia is such a key location for US forces in the Gulf (see article 16 in this series). There are two separate issues at work, and together they complicate the situation.
The first element is that some sections of the Saudi government rightly regard the US presence as one of the main motivations driving the development of organisations such as al-Qaida. If the US was to leave Saudi Arabia, these sections believe that would greatly relieve the pressures on the regime. They point out that the main growth of the anti-government groups has taken place since the US came into Saudi Arabia in 1990.
The other element is that some senior US armed forces officers would prefer the US to leave Saudi Arabia because of restrictions already placed on their activities by the Saudi authorities. A notable example of this took place back in December 1998 when the US launched the major Desert Fox military operation against Iraq.
On that occasion, the Saudis refused to let the US use its strike aircraft operating from the Prince Sultan Air Force Base for attacks on Iraq, and refused even to let the US deploy the aircraft to other bases in the region. This severely limited the extent of the operation, not least because the planes at Prince Sultan AFB included the F-15E Strike Eagle bombers, intended to form the core of the operation.
This sent a powerful message to planners in the Pentagon that the US simply did not have free reign for its forces in the Kingdom, and raised questions over future operations.
Even so, the bottom line among the political powers in Washington is that Saudi Arabia is of such immense importance to the US, not least because of its control of over a quarter of all known world oil reserves, that any talk of withdrawal of US forces would be strongly resisted. To withdraw would send a powerful signal that the US is not welcome in the region as a whole, and that al-Qaida had won a significant victory after the atrocities of 11 September.
Defence begins at home
In the United States itself, the Defence Budget for Fiscal Year 2003 (actually October 2002 to September 2003) is expected to increase by $48 billion, close to one and a half times the entire UK defence budget. This is the largest increase for more than twenty years and reverses many of the cutbacks achieved in the early post-Cold War years of the 1990s. Much of the increase will be accounted for by spending on homeland defence, together with spending on more precision-guided weapons and on missile defence.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is trying to assess the need for maintaining current air defence patrols over US cities. Prior to 11 September, the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) maintained just 14 fighter aircraft at a high alert status, a number that surged to over 100 in the immediate aftermath of the New York and Washington attacks, and then doubled again within 24 hours.
Since then, numbers have decreased; but there are still combat air patrols mounted over New York and Washington. The patrols are supported by AWACs aircraft, provided partly by NATO, as well as specific patrols to provide protection to President Bush and Vice-President Cheney when they travel outside Washington. By mid-January around 9,500 air defence sorties had been flown since 11 September, supported by 3,500 tanker movements.
The USAF patrols are provided partly by serving troops but partly by air force reservists, and the pressure of use is severely stretching their capabilities, both in terms of crew availability and maintenance of the aircraft. The problem is that the traditional threat was always expected to come from outside. The head of NORAD, USAF General Ralph E. Eberhart, was quoted recently in Aviation Week:
Regrettably, the threat to our air sovereignty can originate inside North America, as opposed to outside. I believe that has caused us to rethink the command and control, sensors and information that will be needed to perform our mission in the future. It obviously accelerated the requirement to move toward some kind of homeland defense command. The need is here, now.