KABUL, Afghanistan — Citing evidence that Taliban insurgents have expanded their reach across Afghanistan, aid groups and security analysts in the country are challenging as misleading the Obama administration's recent claim that insurgents now control less territory than they did a year ago.
"Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year," said Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization that analyzes security dangers for aid groups.
"We don't see COIN has had any impact on the five-year trajectory," he said, referring to the counterinsurgency strategy that U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has championed.
While U.S.-led forces have driven insurgents out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, Taliban advances in the rest of the country may have offset those gains, a cross section of year-end estimates suggests.
Insurgent attacks have jumped at least 66 percent this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.
Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
A recent United Nations security estimate of the risks that U.N. personnel face as they travel around Afghanistan concluded that security was deteriorating in growing pockets across the country.
In one example, the U.N.'s World Food Program no longer sends its trucks along the road that links Kabul to Bamiyan, one of the country's safest regions, because a bomb killed a U.N. contract driver and three police escorts on the route in July.
"Our ability to use these routes has decreased," said Challiss McDonough, a Kabul-based spokeswoman for the international food program. "There are fewer places where we have completely unimpeded access."
A 20 percent increase in civilian casualties in 2010 and the highest coalition death toll in nine years of war add to the belief in Afghanistan that insecurity is growing, not declining.
"I can't understand how they can say it is more secure than last year," said Hashim Mayar, the acting director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 Afghan and international aid groups working in Afghanistan. "Insecurity has extended to some parts of the county that were relatively safe last year."
President Barack Obama offered the assessment of diminished Taliban control on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit to the country.
"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future," said Obama told U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated the claim two weeks later in discussing the findings of a 40-page still-secret assessment of U.S. progress in Afghanistan that was announced Dec. 16.
"As a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago," Gates said.
The five-page unclassified version of that assessment doesn't include the statement about territorial control, but it leaves the impression that the Taliban are on the run.
"The surge in coalition military and civilian resources . . . has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country," the unclassified version says.
In the days since its release, the White House and U.S. officials in Kabul have declined to provide specifics, saying only that the conclusion was based on a variety of measures that include the number of districts under Taliban or government control, estimates of Taliban freedom of movement and information about roadside bombs.
"There's just not a lot more we can offer without getting into classified information," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday in an e-mail message.
Last month, the Pentagon concluded that Afghan insurgents' "capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding."
Asked whether that assessment conflicts with the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, a military spokesman said that both could be true.
"You can, in fact, lose ground but be more geographically dispersed," said U.S. Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the communications director for the American-led military in Afghanistan.
Smith produced military maps that showed expanding "ink spots" of security around Afghanistan's biggest population centers, including Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan.
Smith argued that by focusing on protecting the country's largest population centers under the administration's counterinsurgency strategy, the U.S.-led military has contained much of the violence and is protecting a growing percentage of the country's 28 million residents, even if the Taliban are operating more widely.
In the past year, Smith said, the U.S. military has managed to reduce the number of Afghan districts that account for half of the violence from 14 to nine.
"They will expend a force to go somewhere thinking that we will follow them out of the main . . . population centers," Smith said. "Well, they're mistaken. We're not going to get sucked into chasing them around the country."
Even so, Smith said the military couldn't vouch for the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, which he said was based on a CIA study, not a military one.
"It's not a metric that we're able to validate from an ISAF perspective," he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the official name of the coalition. "Not that I disagree with it, but the agency that does that is a three-letter agency."
A former senior U.S. intelligence official who closely tracks the conflict in Afghanistan said that his own count, based on news reports, showed insurgency-related violence in at least 231 out of the country's 400 districts in November.
The former official, who agreed to discuss his findings only if he weren't identified, because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the count showed the Taliban's reach expanding.
"Even in unclassified sources, it's clear that the Taliban are showing they have greater reach than ever before," he said. "I don't know if they have the staying power." But they can reach previously unaffected areas, he said, "and that means terror. That means they can punish anybody anywhere."
"There were a lot more districts in contention than there were a year ago," he said.
Recent U.N. security estimates that The Wall Street Journal obtained appeared to support that view.
The maps, which assess the safety risks for U.N. staff traveling around Afghanistan, showed security deteriorating in growing pockets across the country.
Problems from March to October of this year worsened in eight provinces and overall travel risks improved in only two, the Journal reported.
(Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.)
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