The Global Economic War

From Nigeria to the Philippines, Mexico to India, insurgents are finding new ways to mobilise rage. It is in Afghanistan that the tactical impact will be most sharply felt.

Open Democracy
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Vol. VIII, No. 29, August 24-30, 2008

From Nigeria to the Philippines, Mexico to India, insurgents are finding new ways to mobilise rage. It is in Afghanistan that the tactical impact will be most sharply felt.

The five-day war between Georgia and Russia, and the opening week of the Olympic games in Beijing, captured much of the world’s and the media’s attention in the second week of August 2008. It is not surprising, then, that events in the continuing, low-level – though increasingly dangerous – war in Afghanistan have been relatively under-reported. After all, who wants to read about an asymmetrical war between rural insurgents and advanced military powers that will soon enter its eighth year?

It is a question that will need no answer from the family or colleagues of the British soldier killed by a suicide-bomb on 11 August; or from those of the four workers of the humanitarian group the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who were killed as they drove from Gardez in southwest Afghanistan to Kabul on 13 August (an incident that has led the IRC indefinitely to suspend its operations in the country after twenty years of work); or from those of the Afghan civilians who continue to die on a regular basis as a result of bombing-raids by NATO / International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) air-strikes.

But even without the headlines, the conflict in Afghanistan has an impact on many more than the bereaved – and the signs are that this impact is set to intensify as the tactical sophistication of the insurgents increases. A graphic report on 13 August from Kabul by the BBC’s Afghanistan correspondent, pointing out that Taliban militias had greatly increased their level of targeting of the supply-lines into Kabul, illustrates how the war is spreading (see Alastair Leithead, “Taleban at Kabul’s doorstep”, BBC, 13 August 2008). A much-vaunted success of economic regeneration after the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001 was Highway One, the main route into Kabul; but it is now repeatedly the target of the revitalised Taliban insurgents.

The BBC report states that fifty-one trucks have been destroyed in attacks on the highway since mid-July 2008 alone. This is just one indication of a concentration on supply-routes that has been evolving for over a year . Such intensity of focus presents serious problems even to the best-equipped and most technologically advanced armies in the world (see Sami Yousafzai & Ron Moreau, “The Taliban’s Baghdad strategy” , 26 July 2008).

From Kabul to the Niger delta

This trend in Afghanistan is paralleled by similar instances of paramilitary targeting of critical economic infrastructure by other groups around the world – as far afield as Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria and India. Their individual and local projects have the ability to cause disruption that has global effects, though they have yet to be registered alongside the discussion of the performance of higher-profile militant groups (see Anton La Guardia, “Al-Qaeda: Winning or losing?”, Economist, 17 July 2008).

An earlier column in this series pointed to this emerging cluster, citing also events in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere (see “The asymmetry of economic war”, 14 February 2008). In the six months since it was published, there have been numerous further incidents of this kind. There is, for example, a new emphasis on economic targeting by the resurgent Naxalite rebels in India; such tactics are particularly effective in a rapidly growing economy where the infrastructure is already struggling to keep up with demand and is therefore vulnerable to even small-scale operations (see “China and India: heartlands of global protest”, 7 August 2008).

This was also the experience in Mexico in 2007 where the previously marginal Marxist EPR insurgents staged multiple attacks on oil-and-gas pipelines. The EPR continued these tactics three months ago while rejecting talks with the Mexican government (see Mark Joyce, “Mexican pipeline bombers reject talks”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, June 2008). Meanwhile, the (Maoist) New People’s Army in the Philippines has extended its operations against power lines, telecommunications centres and roads to include mining operations as the Philippines’ extractive industries experience rapid investment by foreign companies (see Gavin Greenwood, “Rich Seam”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 2008).

Even such examples of disruption in India, Mexico and the Philippines are small-scale, however, compared to the problems experienced by the Nigerian oil industry. These have evolved over several years, but in 2008 have become much more serious.

The oil-production systems in the Niger delta are broadly grouped into three zones: the operations based on land, those in the swamps and shallow waters of the coastal delta, and deep-water operations that are relatively recent but have become very productive. The on-shore facilities have long been subject to sabotage by a number of local militias resentful at what is seen as the riches of their region being siphoned off to Nigeria’s elites. More recently there has been an increase in attacks on the swamp and shallow-water facilities, notwithstanding the difficult terrain that needs to be crossed in reaching them.

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