Afghan Taliban getting stronger, Pentagon says

Los Angeles Times

A Pentagon report presented a sobering new assessment Wednesday of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that its abilities are expanding and its operations are increasing in sophistication, despite recent major offensives by U.S. forces in the militants’ heartland.

The report, requested by Congress, portrays an insurgency with deep roots and broad reach, able to withstand repeated U.S. onslaughts and to reestablish its influence, while discrediting and undermining the country’s Western-backed government.

But the Pentagon said it remained optimistic that its counter-insurgency strategy, formed after an Obama administration review last year, and its effort to peel foot soldiers away from the Taliban will show success in months to come.

The assessment follows a U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and the capture of several senior Taliban leaders, developments portrayed by the Pentagon as a boost to the momentum behind allied troops in the nearly 9-year-old war. Those successes backed the view that President Obama’s decision to deploy 30,000 additional U.S. forces had begun to show positive results.

The next phase of U.S. strategy is expected to begin in the coming weeks, as U.S. and Afghan forces step up operations around the city of Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban movement.

The new report offers a grim take on the likely difficulty of establishing lasting security, especially in southern Afghanistan, where the insurgency enjoys broad support. The conclusions raise the prospect that the insurgency in the south may never be completely vanquished, but instead must be contained to prevent it from threatening the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The report concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai’s government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes.

U.S.-led military operations have had “some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds, particularly in central Helmand,” the report said. But it adds: “The insurgent tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce local governance.”

The report concurs with earlier findings by the U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, and others that violence in Afghanistan began to level off in the first months of 2010. But the Pentagon also notes that Afghan insurgents consider 2009, Obama’s first year in office, to be their most successful year because of their ability to increase the level of violence.

The report issued Wednesday examines the period between October and the end of March, and is the first since the Obama administration put its new strategy in place.

A senior Defense official who briefed reporters on the report said violence increased last year in part because of the additional U.S. troops.

“The level of violence has gone up in our judgment … because we have more forces confronting the Taliban in more areas,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged the assessment of the insurgency was more pessimistic than in previous assessments. “This is a very serious and sober report,” he said.

There are currently about 87,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a number expected to rise to 98,000 by the end of August.

Military officials expect insurgents to try and further step up the use of roadside bombs to increase NATO casualties in 2010. Following the announcement of the U.S. troop surge, insurgent leaders shifted from direct attacks to roadside bombs and other indirect assaults.

The insurgency has easy access to fighters, small arms and explosives for roadside bombs, the report notes, giving fighters a “robust means” to sustain military operations.

“A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population, where insurgents exploit poverty, tribal friction, and lack of governance to grow their ranks,” the report said.

The report also notes that insurgents’ tactics are increasing in sophistication and the militants have also become more able to achieve broader strategic effects with successful attacks. The Taliban continue to use threats and targeted killings to intimidate the Afghan population.

At the same time, Taliban shadow governments, which can include courts and basic social services, have strengthened, undermining the authority of the Afghan government, according to the report.

Taliban leaders also have undermined the credibility of the central Afghan government by leveling accusations of corruption -- many of them accurate -- against local and regional officials, the report said. Information operations and media campaigns are a particular strength, the report said.

Obama administration officials angered by inefficiency and corruption have been at odds with Karzai’s government for months. The relationship soured especially after widespread allegations of fraud surfaced in last August’s presidential election.

Obama delivered a critique on corruption during a trip to Kabul in March. White House aides publicized it, angering Karzai. Good governance is a key element of new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.

The Pentagon also expects insurgent leaders to try and expand their operations in western and northern Afghanistan this year to try and decrease Afghan participation in this year’s parliamentary election.

U.S. and allied officials have stressed the importance of improving the Afghan security forces. But the report notes that efforts to enhance the Afghan national army have made “slow progress” over the last year, due largely to “high attrition and low retention” of recruits.

U.S. commanders said Afghan troops who supported Marines in the battle to end Taliban control of Marja early this year were better than those who fought in similar circumstances last year, but still need much more training.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Marja operation, said he would give some Afghan units an A-minus or B-plus. But others, particularly those with soldiers fresh from basic training, performed much worse.

Despite the view of an insurgency gaining in strength, the western military effort also has some important advantages, the report said. A survey conducted in March showed 52% of Afghans blame insurgents for insecurity in the country, while a minority blame the Afghan security forces.

“This perception provides an opportunity for the Afghan Government, with the support of the international community, to improve its legitimacy and enhance popular perceptions of the government,” the report said.

The assessment also reported “fissures” among insurgent groups, particularly at the local level. As a result, insurgents often have difficulty coordinating their operations.

The report also said that insurgent attacks on Afghan civilians continue to undermine its efforts.

U.S. officials have taken steps to reduce unintended civilian casualties, but similar orders by Taliban leaders have had little effect, according to the Pentagon report.

Between October and March, the insurgency was responsible for 157 civilian deaths while NATO and Afghan security forces were responsible for 68, according to the report.

Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this report.