Anti-Taliban coalition in grim Afghan struggle as insurgents prove adaptable


AFGHANISTAN:Efficient tactical action has resulted in higher levels of casualties for western forces, writes Laura Kingin Kandahar

A SUMMER of heavy fighting during which western military leaders had hoped to seize the initiative from Islamic militants has instead revealed an insurgency capable of employing complex new tactics and fighting across a broad swath of Afghanistan.

Over the last three months, insurgents have inflicted the highest casualty tolls on western forces since the Afghan war began nearly seven years ago. Numbers of foreign troops killed have exceeded US military deaths in Iraq.

As Washington prepares to increase troop levels, militants have created a palpable sense of encirclement in Kabul with a series of small but highly symbolic attacks near the capital. They have reaped a propaganda bonanza from accidental killings of civilians by foreign forces and have undercut reconstruction efforts by targeting aid workers.

Meanwhile, the vast narcotics empire presided over by the Taliban has continued to flourish, its profits helping to ensure a flow of cash and weaponry.

The insurgents have suffered losses too. Nato and US-led forces, which total nearly 65,000 troops, say they have killed hundreds of insurgents over the summer. Dozens of veteran mid-level commanders have been arrested or killed.

At the same time, though, they have demonstrated new strength, sophistication and ambition - particularly in eastern Afghanistan. A roadside blast there on Wednesday killed four foreign soldiers and an Afghan.

Western field commanders readily acknowledge that the Taliban and their allies learn from failures as well as successes. When Taliban fighters noticed that western forces were jamming the signals they used to detonate roadside bombs, they switched back to pressure plates that would be set off by a passing convoy.

In June, the Taliban orchestrated a spectacular prison break, setting hundreds of insurgents free. A multi-pronged assault on a remote, newly-established US outpost killed nine Americans in July. In August, an ambush killed 10 elite French troops. In large swathes of the countryside, insurgents have been able to intimidate local officials into co-operating, in part because President Hamid Karzai's government is perceived to be corrupt and inefficient.

American forces have recently stepped up strikes, mostly airborne, against militant targets inside Pakistan. However, military officials and analysts say the insurgents may become less reliant on rear bases in Pakistan because they have been improving their infrastructure inside Afghanistan. For example, they have created large networks of safe houses close to Kabul.

In contrast to the insurgents' freedom of movement, western forces must expend great effort and large numbers of troops to dominate even a sliver of territory. The US 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, now ending an eight-month deployment in southern Afghanistan, spent nearly its entire tenure taking and holding Garmsir, a small but strategic district in Helmand province.

The unit's commander, Col Peter Petronzio, expressed confidence that Afghan troops, backed by British forces, would be able to hold that ground. However, local officials, and a source familiar with the marines' own intelligence assessments, suggested the district could slip back into insurgent hands.

"You see that everywhere," said Qadoos, the tribal leader from Kandahar province. "The foreigners come, and stay for a week or a month, and then they leave. And a few days later, the Taliban are back.

"And then everyone who co-operated with the foreigners - tribal leaders, any prominent person in the community - is in immediate danger of being killed."

Among the most corrosive issues afflicting western forces' relations with Afghans and their government is civilian casualties. Groups including Human Rights Watch link large-scale civilian deaths to what they say is an excessive reliance on air power.

An apparently misdirected airstrike on July 6th in eastern Nangarhar province hit a convoy travelling to a wedding party. At least 47 people were reported killed, including the bride-to-be. Even more damaging was the August 22nd bombardment of a village in Herat province. American military officials have acknowledged killing seven civilians in the raid; Afghan officials backed by the UN say 90 people died, many of them children.

However, western officials point out that insurgents kill more civilians than foreign troops - and do so deliberately. A UN report issued on Tuesday said 1,445 civilians had been killed in the first eight months of 2008, 800 of them by insurgents.

One analyst, said it will probably take three to five years before the war's outcome would be clear.

"But in the meantime, will we have enough forces to take the initiative away from the Taliban?" he said. "The answer is probably no." - ( Los Angeles Times/Washington Postservice)