By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
KABUL -- Preying on a weak government and rising public concerns about security, the Taliban is enjoying a military resurgence in Afghanistan and is now staging attacks just outside the capital, according to Western diplomats, private security analysts and aid workers.
Of particular concern, private security and intelligence analysts said, is the new reach of the Taliban to the provinces ringing Kabul, headquarters for thousands of international security troops. Those troops are seeking to shore up the government of President Hamid Karzai, help stabilize the country, find Osama bin Laden and rebuild a nation deeply scarred by almost three decades of warfare. So far, they have had only mixed success.
"The Taliban ability to sustain fighting cells north and south of Kabul is an ominous development and a significant lapse in security," said a recent analysis by NightWatch, an intelligence review written by John McCreary, a former top analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
While the number of attacks around the capital has been small compared with the number of attacks in other areas of the country, McCreary wrote, the data showed that the Taliban this summer "held the psychological initiative. They still lack the ability to threaten the government, but moved closer to achieving it than they have in six years."
Analyses by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a project funded by the European Commission to advise private aid groups about security conditions across the country, found "a significant monthly escalation in conflict" in the first half of the year. Attacks by armed opposition groups increased from 139 in January to 405 in July, according to the project's director, Nic Lee.
"Every month there's a 20 to 25 percent increase in offensive activity," he said, adding that attacks in June and July were 80 to 90 percent higher than the same period last year, showing a general escalation in the conflict, rather than seasonal fluctuations.
"Attacks have spread across the entire southeast border area, with a rapid escalation in the east, and in the last four months in the center" around Kabul as well, Lee said. "These guys have the strategic intent to take back the country."
NATO and U.S. officials have not released their own statistics about attack trends, but they dispute the notion that the Taliban is significantly expanding operations from its traditional base in the south or that Afghanistan is sliding backward.
U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said much of the activity attributed to the Taliban and other militant groups probably was not part of the anti-government insurgency, but more likely was related to criminal activity, narcotics trafficking and tribal disputes. And in some cases, he said, levels of conflict are up because more NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces are pushing into areas of the country where they had never operated. There are an estimated 50,000 international troops here, about half of them American.
"Logic tells you the number of incidents you report are going to be increased," he said.
The Taliban's use of guerrilla warfare tactics -- particularly suicide attacks and roadside bombings -- is on the rise, largely because the insurgents cannot challenge foreign security forces through conventional means, McNeill said. About 60 percent of Afghanistan -- a country slightly smaller than Texas and with 32 million people -- experiences on average less than one significant security event a week, he said, although "the south and the east are clearly exceptions."
The rise in attacks reflects "acts of desperation," said Humayun Hamidzada, the spokesman for Karzai. "If you go and blow up 20 civilians, what does it show? Does it show strength? It shows their weakness. It's no resurgence. It's just showing who they really are."
The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and promulgated a harsh and often unorthodox brand of Islamic law. The group intimidated and brutalized citizens, particularly women, destroyed Afghan culture, isolated the country internationally and allowed it to become a base for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in part, from camps in Afghanistan.
Following the attacks, U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban and began an intense manhunt for bin Laden, who remains at large.
In the aftermath of the invasion, senior American, Afghan and Pakistani officials described the Taliban as a spent force. Today, that assessment is widely doubted.
"The question is, were they ever defeated, and I don't think they ever were," McNeill said.
Many analysts say they believe the Taliban continues to draw support from elements in Pakistan, a claim hotly disputed by the government in Islamabad. The consensus among independent intelligence analysts is that the Taliban leadership is headquartered in Pakistan's frontier city of Quetta, about 70 miles from the Afghan border.
"You can kill a few Talibs here in Afghanistan, but you should go and see where all these Talibs are trained, where they are brainwashed, where they are armed," said Hamidzada, Karzai's spokesman. "If you address the question in Pakistan, then I think the troops could go home very soon, because that's where the root cause of the problem is."
Karzai is trying to open negotiations with the Taliban, and he recently allowed South Korean officials to negotiate directly with the radical group for the release of 21 hostages, a move some believe undermined the authority of his government and boosted the legitimacy of the insurgents. Hamidzada said the hostage negotiations were allowed "under strict conditions" and solely for humanitarian reasons.
Today, there is a growing fear that the same factors that gave rise to the Taliban in the 1990s -- corruption, crime, dysfunctional government -- are contributing to its current revival, even though few people embrace the movement or want it to return to power.
"The strength of the Taliban is the weakness of the government, which is not able to establish its authority in the remote areas," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. With rampant crime and corruption, former warlords and Taliban officials now in the government, and shooting incidents by NATO and U.S.-led forces that have killed too many civilians, he said, "after six years, the Taliban has come back with a stronger voice."
Hakim said an estimated 600 civilians were killed in the first half of the year in conflict-related incidents. A report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, the security advisory group, tabulated 678 conflict-related deaths in the same period -- 347 caused by insurgents, 331 by coalition forces.
"Lawlessness and widespread corruption at the government level in Kabul have badly disappointed people with the Karzai regime," and civilian deaths caused by foreign troops have undercut the president's popularity, said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul.
McNeill, the NATO commander, said that faster development is key to securing more popular support.
"The will of the people is incredibly important to anybody who is waging a counterinsurgency operation, and I think the will of the people could have a finite shelf life," he said. "If we can continue to show some steps of progress, especially in the business of reconstruction, then we can hang on to the people for a tad longer."
Officials cite significant achievements since the fall of the Taliban, including lower mortality rates for mothers and children, rising economic growth rates and the construction of hundreds of miles of roads. More than 670 schools have been built or refurbished, and more than 5 million students are enrolled in classes, compared with 900,000 under the Taliban. McNeill said the Afghan army also has been gradually beefing up its capabilities. The force now stands at about 40,000 and is expected to reach 70,000 trained and equipped soldiers by the end of next year.
Fighting and holding ground "is a problem for us," McNeill said. "We're not all the force we should be, both in size and capability." Boosting Afghan army and police forces is a key goal because indigenous forces typically are the most effective in fighting a counterinsurgency, he said.
But they face a formidable foe.
"The Taliban has already fought one war for this country, and they were quite successful," eventually ruling for five years, Lee said. "You don't do that without learning how to do things: establishing supply routes, isolating Kabul, how to target aircraft."
In an insurgency, he said, "you don't have to win, you just need to make sure the other guys don't, and they have time on their side."
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.