New York Times
August 1, 2004
By Eric Schmitt and David Rohde
Attacks against American troops in Afghanistan and Afghan security forces and civilians have increased steadily in the past several months, posing new hurdles for reconstruction and political stability efforts, American commanders and Afghan officials say.
Fighting has intensified, particularly in the east along the rugged, 1,500-mile border with Pakistan and in the south near Kandahar. Twenty-three American troops have died from ambushes, land mines and other hostile fire this year, compared with 12 combat deaths in all of 2003, according to military statistics. An increasingly popular weapon may have been inspired by insurgents in Iraq: remote-controlled bombs.
The Taliban have stepped up recruiting in the south and intensified strikes against newly trained Afghan soldiers and police officers, as well as foreign-aid workers. This week, the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders said it was withdrawing from Afghanistan after 24 years, in part because of the deteriorating security there.
The attacks appear to be having the most impact in rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Afghan government is still struggling to establish its authority nearly three years after the Taliban fell. That part of the country has been a traditional Taliban stronghold. Reconstruction in some areas has come to a near standstill, and local people remain hostile to the Americans and the Afghan government.
American commanders nonetheless paint an optimistic picture, saying the increased attacks are signs of the Taliban's desperation and of expanding allied operations. The United States has doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan in the last year, to about 20,000 troops at its peak recently, and expanded their presence throughout the country. Commanders say a new counterinsurgency strategy adopted late last year has paid dividends, by providing security for fledgling reconstruction projects and enabling soldiers to gather fresh intelligence to use in their attacks against militants.
"Huge challenges" remain
"There are still some huge challenges, mainly in the security area," Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said by telephone from his headquarters in Kabul, the capital. "But on a broad scale, as we look to the election, we think this country is very much on the road to success."
While the attacks have increased, they still do not approach the level of violence in Iraq and have failed in many ways to halt reconstruction efforts, American and Afghan officials say. A Taliban campaign to derail a voter registration drive for the Afghan presidential election in October has largely failed, with roughly 8 million of 10 million eligible voters defying Taliban death threats and registering.
Taliban attacks appear to have virtually no effect on Afghanistan's main cities, where foreign reconstruction money, remittances from Afghans living abroad and the opium trade are fueling a construction boom. But the Taliban appear to be hampering the flow of aid in rural areas, particularly in remote regions in the south.
This month, General Barno announced that American-led forces, joined by thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers, would increase security operations for the Afghan presidential elections.
"Without question, the Taliban view this year as a political watershed," said General Barno, a West Point graduate who assumed command in October. "They have a very specific objective: voter registration and the elections. They're seeking to disrupt them with attacks against soft targets. That's helped to drive up the attacks."
General Barno is the architect of tactics adopted late last year in which American units down to the level of 40-soldier platoons have been dispatched to live in villages where they can forge ties with tribal elders and glean better information about the location and activities of guerrillas.
Previously, American forces typically gathered intelligence about hostile forces, carried out focused raids for several days against those targets, then returned to base to plan and prepare for their next mission.
American commanders say they are getting better cooperation in some areas, while pockets of hostility persist in others.
The United States is now operating in 26 locations around the country, including military outposts and provincial reconstruction teams aimed at enhancing reconstruction and extending the reach of the government, General Barno said; a year ago, there were 11 such locations.
American commanders say the increased American military presence has initiated new attacks against the insurgents and drawn fire from militants. Marines who recently withdrew from Oruzgan Province, home to the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, say they have killed more than 100 fighters in their four-month stay.
After the recent withdrawal of some 2,000 marines, there remain 18,000 American and other allied troops, including Romanian infantry and South Korean engineers, who are operating in Afghanistan alongside a 6,500-member NATO peacekeeping force in and around Kabul. Army and Marine helicopter gunships and Air Force A-10's and B-1's provide air power.
General Barno said he had repositioned two Army battalions to replace the departing marines, and would see if more troops were necessary.
An additional 1,800 NATO troops from Spain and Italy are to arrive in the coming weeks to help bolster security for the election, a far smaller force than Afghan officials have requested.
American forces are also trying to integrate 14,000 members of the new Afghan Army and 21,000 newly trained Afghan police officers. But some Pentagon officials expressed disappointment that the Afghan police and other security forces have been poorly integrated into the overall security structure.
Several hundred Special Operations forces are also spread across the country, conducting tasks including road-building, other civil works duties and paramilitary strikes against senior insurgent leaders.
Hundreds of additional troops have also been assigned to 16 provincial reconstruction teams around the country, part of General Barno's strategy to assert "ownership" of an area rather than hopscotch around the country.
"The bottom line is, even though attacks are up, we're getting done the business we need to get done," Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, General Barno's top ground commander, said in a telephone interview from his headquarters at Bagram Air Base.
Along the border with Pakistan, an array of spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other militants who slip back and forth across the mountainous border, and use their sanctuaries to launch nightly rocket and mortar attacks against American military outposts.
After little action for two years, roughly 40,000 regular Pakistani army troops and 30,000 paramilitary scouts mounted an offensive this spring to sweep foreign militants out of the tribal areas, according to Pakistani officials.
Mahmood Shah, a retired brigadier general who is in charge of security in the tribal areas, said a new operation started by the Pakistani military in the South Waziristan tribal area in June had resulted in the clearing of the Shakai valley, where several hundreds of foreign militants had been sheltered for the past two years.
Gains, but deaths
But while there are successes in Afghanistan, the death toll continues to mount. Afghan government officials said they had kept no overall tally of the number of Afghans killed across the country, including soldiers and police officers.
But the review of attacks reported by news agencies indicates that in the first six months of 2003, Taliban fighters killed 119 Afghans. In the first six months of 2004, they killed 179 Afghans, an increase of 50 percent. Most of the killings involved Afghan police officers or soldiers being killed in ambushes, attacks or clashes with Taliban forces in rural areas in the south and east.
Beginning in early 2003, Taliban fighters also began singling out aid workers, killing at least 16 Afghan aid workers and at least one foreign aid worker between March 2003 and the present, according to the review.
This year numerous other attacks on foreigners have occurred, but it has been unclear whether the Taliban are responsible. In the first six months of 2004, attacks on foreigners soared, with 17 foreign contractors and foreign aid workers killed across the country. But it is not known whether the unidentified assailants were factional fighters, Taliban supporters or simple thieves.
Rural attacks increase
In rural Zabul, Oruzgan, Khost, Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, attacks have grown in intensity in the last year, according to the review. Zabul Province, in particular, now produces reports of clashes between Afghan and American forces and Taliban fighters roughly each week.
An example of the trend in rural areas is northern Helmand, a drought-stricken area where the Taliban have gained strength this year, Afghan officials and aid workers said.
Mullahs in local mosques in northern Helmand have begun openly preaching jihad against Americans and the Afghan government, they said. A local warlord who tolerated the provincial governor has begun threatening government workers.
Shir Mohammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand Province, said in an interview in late June that Taliban forces had killed 15 to 20 soldiers in the province in the past four months. In all of the previous year, they killed 14 soldiers.
Mr. Akhundzada and his intelligence chief said that for the first time since 2001 the Taliban were recruiting young people in northern Helmand. Until now, fresh Taliban recruits had come from Pakistan, they said, where three million Afghan refugees still live.
"Nowadays, I'm feeling that lots of local people also join them," the governor said. "Some of the people are a little bit angry with the Americans and some are unhappy with the government."
He said severe drought in northern Helmand continued to fuel poverty and frustration. He also called on American forces to "act very carefully with the people," as elections approach, and ensure that intelligence tips they receive are genuine and do not lure them into local feuds.
Fueling local anger
House searches and arrests of innocent Afghans by American forces have angered the local population, highly conservative ethnic Pashtuns, he said. He complained about one raid where American soldiers confiscated heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from a government police station.
"When they are going and arresting the police, the police will get very disappointed and angry," he said. "There are no other people to send there to north Helmand."
Malim Dadu, the intelligence chief in Helmand Province, estimated that the Taliban were 50 percent stronger now than a year earlier and were increasingly well financed. He said that local people were now helping the Taliban "a lot" and admitted that the Afghan government was failing on its own in some areas. He said security was lacking on the highways and government "administrative people are taking bribes."
Afghan officials say the situation is not yet dire. But they expressed concern about the growing strength of the Taliban in rural areas. "God willing, we are stronger than the Taliban now," said Mr. Akhundzada, the Helmand governor. "But we don't know about the future."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company