Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics

An Afghan boy surveys the site of a suicide car bombing in Kabul. Western development projects, such as roads, have created targets for Taliban attacks.
An Afghan boy surveys the site of a suicide car bombing in Kabul. Western development projects, such as roads, have created targets for Taliban attacks. (By Daniel Berehulak -- Getty Images)
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the U.S. military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy's resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.

U.S. rules of engagement restricting the use of air power and aggressive action against civilians have also opened new space for the insurgents, officials said. Western development projects, such as new roads, schools and police stations, have provided fresh targets for Taliban roadside bombs and suicide attacks. The inability of rising numbers of American troops to protect Afghan citizens has increased resentment of the Western presence and the corrupt Afghan government that cooperates with it, the officials said.

As President Obama faces crucial decisions on his war strategy and declining public support at home, administration and defense officials are studying the reasons why the Taliban appears, for the moment at least, to be winning.

In the spring, Obama outlined a broad new direction for the war that he said his predecessor had starved of attention and resources. He changed the military leadership on the ground, asked Congress for additional money and authorized more manpower. The administration has said that it expects the strategy -- still barely off the ground -- to show results in a year to 18 months.

But many U.S. officials and their allies feel that they are in a race against time and the determination of a battle-hardened enemy that has learned from its own mistakes and those of U.S. and NATO forces over nearly eight years of combat. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, gave Obama an assessment this week of what he described as a "serious" situation.

"The point is that the Taliban, who have had a very clear aim and means from the very beginning, have been able slowly and steadily to get better at what they're doing," said a European official whose country's troops are fighting alongside U.S. forces. More U.S. and NATO troops have been killed in 2009 than in any year since the war began in late 2001; U.S. deaths in August reached an all-time monthly high of 47.

Although McChrystal's report has not been publicly released, officials said it calls for further significant strategic revisions. In the coming weeks, Obama will weigh the merits of McChrystal's recommendations and decide whether to provide whatever additional troops are necessary to implement them.

About a dozen military officials in Washington and at regional command headquarters here and abroad discussed Taliban capabilities and battlefield trends on the condition of anonymity. Most expressed optimism that with time the U.S. strategy could prevail, but said that the Taliban has gained psychological, as well as actual, ground.

"There are periods when an enemy does well and seems better trained and fights harder," one senior defense official said. "The number one indicator we have out there now is that they think they're winning. That creates an attitude, a positive outlook, and a willingness to sacrifice."

The positive outlook has a basis in fact, the official said, as areas of Taliban influence have expanded. "They have enough of the landscape that they control to be able to train more and in closer proximity to where they're fighting. And the people [living] there actually believe the Taliban can do something."

U.S. military officials differ on the extent of Taliban success and the reasons for it. Senior U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan, where insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's network is dominant, said that the sophistication of the insurgents' attacks had increased markedly, beginning with bloody battles along the Pakistani border last summer. To many of the Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments.

"In some cases . . . we started to see that enhanced form of attack," said one Army general who oversaw forces in Afghanistan until earlier in the summer. As attacks in the east have increased this year, some officers have speculated that the insurgents are getting more direct help from professional fighters from Arab and Central Asian countries. These embedded trainers, the officers said, play almost the same role as U.S. military training teams that live with and mentor Afghan government forces.

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