KABUL—The number of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in the three months through June was 11% higher than last year, the U.S.-led coalition here said, an increase that comes after almost a year of declines and provides fuel for the debate about whether the Taliban are regaining momentum as American forces withdraw.
Last month's average of roughly 110 attacks a day was the most in a June since the war began, according to coalition statistics released on Thursday. June had more "enemy-initiated attacks"—insurgent gunfire and rocket fire as well as detonated roadside bombs and mines—than any period since fighting peaked in August-September 2010.
A coalition spokesman in Kabul said the recent uptick in enemy attacks was caused by the deployment of more Afghan forces into contested areas and by an unusually short poppy harvest season that gave insurgents more time to prepare.
Some experts, however, see the increase in attacks as a sign the Taliban are gaining momentum. "The numbers indicate that the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani patrons are confident that they still have the upper hand. They certainly are far from defeated," said Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency executive who oversaw the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy review in 2009 and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
U.S. military officials say the number of attacks isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of the Taliban's strength, and point out that the coalition has been relatively successful in its mission to protect major population centers, such as the capital, Kabul, with much of the fighting taking place in more remote areas.
"By forcing insurgents out of the more heavily populated areas…where violence has declined significantly, we can anticipate the insurgency will attempt to increase its attacks, primarily using improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire, in order to continue to retain influence and safe havens," the coalition spokesman said.
Most insurgent attacks in recent months were concentrated in Kandahar, Helmand and other southern provinces, the Taliban's historical cradle and the focus of President Barack Obama's 2010 troop surge. The 33,000 U.S. surge troops are supposed to be all withdrawn by September, with about half already gone, and U.S. presence in Kandahar and Helmand will be significantly reduced.
Virtually all foreign combat forces are slated to leave Afghanistan in 2014, a decision made by the U.S. and allies after military commanders reported the surge operations had reversed the Taliban's momentum and weakened the insurgency.
In Helmand, home to Afghanistan's most violent district, Nahr-e-Saraj, the recent rise in the number of enemy attacks was a direct result of "aggressive operations" carried out by the coalition troops, says U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Stu Upton, spokesman for the Helmand-based Regional Command Southwest.
"Right now we think the insurgency is off-balance," he said. "We plan to keep the pressure on the insurgency and will pursue the enemy relentlessly."
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said it was too early to say whether the increased number of Taliban attacks meant the counterinsurgency strategy failed or merely indicated a Taliban decision to gamble and throw all they can at the coalition and Afghan forces at a potential turning point in the war.
"The more important question is whether Taliban attacks are succeeding," he said. "In recent years, they've shown lots of activity but not much success."
On one metric, killing coalition troops, the Taliban haven't been as effective as in the past. A total of 39 coalition troops were killed in June, down from 66 in June 2011 and 103 in June 2010, the only month in the war when coalition fatalities exceeded 100, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks allied casualties. The number of civilian casualties in June was also well below 2011 and 2010 levels, according to the coalition.
For now, the increase in Taliban activity is unlikely to alter the coalition's withdrawal plans or turn Afghanistan into a campaign issue in the U.S. presidential elections, says Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think-tank close to the Obama administration.
"The strong majority of Americans support removing troops from Afghanistan," Mr. Katulis said. "It would take very dramatic developments for Afghanistan to re-emerge as a political issue this election cycle," he said.
Wall Street Journal
July 27, 2012
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Asian Defence News