The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the U.S. military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy’s resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.
U.S. rules of engagement restricting the use of air power and aggressive action against civilians have also opened new space for the insurgents, officials said. Western development projects, such as new roads, schools and police stations, have provided fresh targets for Taliban roadside bombs and suicide attacks. The inability of rising numbers of American troops to protect Afghan citizens has increased resentment of the Western presence and the corrupt Afghan government that cooperates with it, the officials said.
As President Obama faces crucial decisions on his war strategy and declining public support at home, administration and defense officials are studying the reasons why the Taliban appears, for the moment at least, to be winning.
In the spring, Obama outlined a broad new direction for the war that he said his predecessor had starved of attention and resources. He changed the military leadership on the ground, asked Congress for additional money and authorized more manpower. The administration has said that it expects the strategy – still barely off the ground – to show results in a year to 18 months.
But many U.S. officials and their allies feel that they are in a race against time and the determination of a battle-hardened enemy that has learned from its own mistakes and those of U.S. and NATO forces over nearly eight years of combat. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, gave Obama an assessment this week of what he described as a “serious” situation.
“The point is that the Taliban, who have had a very clear aim and means from the very beginning, have been able slowly and steadily to get better at what they’re doing,” said a European official whose country’s troops are fighting alongside U.S. forces. More U.S. and NATO troops have been killed in 2009 than in any year since the war began in late 2001; U.S. deaths in August reached an all-time monthly high of 47.
Although McChrystal’s report has not been publicly released, officials said it calls for further significant strategic revisions. In the coming weeks, Obama will weigh the merits of McChrystal’s recommendations and decide whether to provide whatever additional troops are necessary to implement them.
About a dozen military officials in Washington and at regional command headquarters here and abroad discussed Taliban capabilities and battlefield trends on the condition of anonymity. Most expressed optimism that with time the U.S. strategy could prevail, but said that the Taliban has gained psychological, as well as actual, ground.
“There are periods when an enemy does well and seems better trained and fights harder,” one senior defense official said. “The number one indicator we have out there now is that they think they’re winning. That creates an attitude, a positive outlook, and a willingness to sacrifice.”
The positive outlook has a basis in fact, the official said, as areas of Taliban influence have expanded. “They have enough of the landscape that they control to be able to train more and in closer proximity to where they’re fighting. And the people [living] there actually believe the Taliban can do something.”
U.S. military officials differ on the extent of Taliban success and the reasons for it. Senior U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan, where insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani’s network is dominant, said that the sophistication of the insurgents’ attacks had increased markedly, beginning with bloody battles along the Pakistani border last summer. To many of the Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments.
“In some cases . . . we started to see that enhanced form of attack,” said one Army general who oversaw forces in Afghanistan until earlier in the summer. As attacks in the east have increased this year, some officers have speculated that the insurgents are getting more direct help from professional fighters from Arab and Central Asian countries. These embedded trainers, the officers said, play almost the same role as U.S. military training teams that live with and mentor Afghan government forces.
In recent months, the Taliban fighters have used mortars to force U.S. troops into defensive positions, where they are then hit with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and machine guns. Insurgent units have learned to maintain “radio silence” as they move and to wet down the ground to prevent dusty recoil that would make them targets. They have “developed the ability to do some of the things that make up what you call a disciplined force,” including treating casualties, the Army general said.
The insurgents have largely abandoned the large-unit attacks they used several years ago. “In 2005, Marines and Army units were having pretty decisive engagements” against massed Taliban fighters, another senior officer said, adding that “every time, we killed them in very large numbers.” Small bases and checkpoints manned by Afghan national security forces have become preferred targets for the Taliban, he said, because they are “isolated and easy to kill,” and the Afghan units are relatively easy to infiltrate for intelligence.
Remote areas where the Taliban has been fighting U.S. forces for years, such as the Korengal Valley near the border with Pakistan, “are a perfect lab to vet fighters and study U.S. tactics,” said a Pentagon officer. The insurgents have learned to gauge the response times for U.S. artillery cannons, as well as fighter jets and helicopters. “They know exactly how long it takes before . . . they have to break contact and pull back,” the officer said.
U.S. officers in southern Afghanistan, where thousands of Marines and British troops are fighting long-entrenched Taliban forces, attributed insurgent gains less to sophisticated tactics than to increased use of roadside bombs — improvised explosive devices, or IEDs — laid along U.S. convoy routes in the desert or roads built with foreign aid money.
“They do tend to play to the areas that they’re strongest in, the hit-and-run tactics and the employment of IEDs,” said Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Marines in Helmand province.
The Taliban has also taken advantage of changes in U.S. air and artillery tactics, adopted to decrease civilian casualties that have alienated the population. U.S. airstrikes and culturally offensive night ground raids are authorized far more selectively than they were. The Taliban has also adjusted its own tactics, gathering in populated areas and increasing its night operations, and “the playing field is leveled,” one U.S. officer said.
A number of officials and experts, within and outside the military, said that while the Taliban was able to regroup militarily while U.S. attention was diverted to Iraq, its widening influence has as much to do with Afghan government corruption, tensions among regional ethnic groups, lack of state service and justice in rural areas, and high rates of unemployment as it does with insurgent efforts.
Military officials expressed confidence in the evolving U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, but also concern about whether there is time to make it work. “I’m not one myself to believe it’s a zero-sum game of winning and losing,” said an official with long experience in Afghanistan.
“To the Taliban, winning is, in fact, not losing,” he said. “They feel that over time, they will ultimately outlast the international community’s attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. It’s really a game of will to them.”
Correspondents Pamela Constable, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Joshua Partlow and Greg Jaffe in Afghanistan contributed to this report.