Are the Taliban Getting Stronger?

The Pentagon recently reported to Congress (PDF) that violence in Afghanistan between October 2009 and March of this year has risen sharply, with so much as 87 percent in fact compared to the same period last year. Insurgent attacks increased throughout 2009 to peak in August just before the country’s presidential election. Most activity has been concentrated in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Orūzgān.

According to the study, “The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year.” Increased violence, allegations of fraud on the part of the Karzai government and a poor turnout in the August election have contributed to a sense of success with the Taliban. The central government in Kabul still fails to provide the population with “tangible benefits,” including basic security. “The inability of the government to provide essential services, and exploitative behavior” of both government officials and Afghan Security Forces personnel “are contributing to the success of the insurgents’ campaign,” notes the report.

This sobering assessment comes amid renewed efforts on the part of the Obama Administration to resolve the war. Although the Pentagon says that it remains optimistic, NATO allies are ever more reluctant to contribute to the ISAF mission — in spite of notable successes in recent months. The Dutch, for instance, lead nation in Orūzgān, will pull out next year while the German government remains under pressure to withdraw.

The Helmand offensive managed to put Afghan government and security personnel in place but on the whole this “hold and build” strategy has been slow to produce results. As soon as Western forces pull out, the Taliban return to intimidate the local population.

Retired US Army General Barry McCaffrey previously warned that the Afghan people “do not know who will prevail.” They do trust the foreign forces by majority — something the Pentagon report confirms — but are uncertain about their long-term commitment.

The Pentagon’s cautious optimism stems from the “unprecedented pressure” inflicted on the insurgents. “Reporting indicates increased and often strained efforts to resource the fight, which has led to tension and sporadic dips in morale.”

From the insurgents’ perspective, this strain has been compounded by the recent high-profile arrests of several Pakistan-based insurgent leaders by Pakistani authorities and removal of many Afghanistan-based commanders, predominantly by international partner special operations forces.

Further weaknesses include persistent fissures among the Taliban’s leadership; many tribal networks and multiple layers of command that can complicate operations; an excessive reliance on external support; and a dependancy on the marginalized segments of the Pashtun population. The insurgency has a “robust” means of sustaining operations though: small arms and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are readily available.

Following the American troop increase, Taliban commanders have avoided direct confrontations with ISAF troops and stepped up the use of IEDs and “stand off” tactics.

The next phase in General Stanley McChrystal’s campaign — “Moshtarak Phase 3” — will focus on the province of Kandahar. “The operation will commence incrementally, once the political conditions are set.”

Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times is worried that no lasting security may ever be established in the south. “The conclusions raise the prospect,” he writes, “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.”

Responding on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed the possibility of including Taliban factions in any future political arrangement. “You’ve got to look to see who is reconcilable,” she said. “Not everybody will be.” Though there will be plenty among the Taliban’s numbers, she suggested, who are “tired of fighting” and willing to “abide by the Afghan constitution.”