In Afghanistan, uptick in violence this winter coincides with less snow

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the U.S., Afghan and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 3:43 PM

KABUL - The first snow of the winter that fell in Kabul last week was a welcome dusting for the war planners at NATO headquarters.

The level of violence across the country has so far been higher than in previous winters, a phenomenon U.S. military officials attribute at least in part to unseasonably warm weather. At one morning briefing last week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, was shown aerial photographs of the lack of snow on the country's rugged mountains, which has allowed Taliban fighters more freedom of movement than usual for the season, according to a U.S. military official.

A couple of days earlier, Petraeus had told ambassadors in Kabul that the violence level so far this winter was "higher than we expected," one participant said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. More important, the participant said, Petraeus predicted that violence would remain elevated throughout the year.

U.S. military officials often explain violence in terms of a counterinsurgency, or COIN, "curve." The idea is that violence rises as new troops pursue the Taliban in a given area but that this does not necessarily signify a worsening situation. It could mean the troops are pursuing insurgents in areas where they have found sanctuary in the past, forcing them to fight.

Then at some point, the theory goes, the curve breaks and heads downward. If all goes well, after some lag time this is followed by improvements in governance and Afghans' perception of the situation. Petraeus's office uses a graph of such a process to explain events in Nawa, the pacified district of the southern province of Helmand that Petraeus calls a "proof of COIN concept."

Petraeus told ambassadors he did not expect the COIN curve overall in Afghanistan to break until the latter part of 2011, the participant said.

According to NATO statistics, there were about 700 "security incidents" in the first week of January, including bombs that exploded and those found before detonation, as well as grenade, mortar and gunfire attacks. Last January, the numbers hovered around 400 a week. The January levels in 2009 were about 200 a week; in 2008, about 100.

The high point last summer, when violence typically spikes, was about 1,150 attacks a week, except for during parliamentary elections in September, when it surged to nearly 1,700.

Compared with last summer, "the numbers of attacks right now are markedly down," said one senior NATO official. "We're in 2011 now. We'll see higher numbers overall than we did last year, month to month, day to day, throughout. Whether or not it dips off and we break that nexus sometime in 2011 remains to be seen, but we're not predicting that."

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