WASHINGTON — While America's attention remains focused on Iraq, violence is escalating in Afghanistan, worrying senior U.S. defense officials and commanders who're struggling to find some 7,000 more American and European troops to combat resurgent Taliban and al Qaida forces.
There are indications that Islamic militants may have adopted a new strategy of avoiding U.S and NATO forces and staging attacks in provinces that haven't seen major unrest and on easy targets such as aid organizations and poorly trained Afghan police.
A roadside bomb reportedly killed two policemen and injured three Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, a day after insurgents killed 11 police officers.
A majority of America's NATO allies continue to balk at U.S. requests to send thousands more of their troops to Afghanistan. At the same time, the renewed violence in Iraq and the White House decision to suspend further American troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer will make it harder for the Pentagon to send more American forces to Afghanistan next year as President Bush has promised.
"I'm deeply concerned," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday. "In this economy of force operation, we do what we can. Requirements exist that we simply cannot fill and won't likely be able to fill until conditions improve in Iraq."
Some 3,500 additional U.S. Marines arrived in southern Afghanistan recently, but they're due to leave at the end of the year and no replacements have been identified.
Last year saw the worst bloodshed in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention that overthrew the Taliban regime and drove Osama bin Laden and his core supporters into Pakistan's remote tribal region, where they've re-established bases for training terrorists and plotting new attacks, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
With Afghanistan due to hold a presidential election next year, pressure is growing on the United States and NATO to contain the insurgency so the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and the United Nations can proceed with the complex balloting preparations.
Several new reports by nongovernmental groups have found that insurgent violence has surged in the first months of this year to a level as high as or higher than it was during the same period last year.
"The data demonstrates a solid escalation of conflict within the first three months of the year as well as a substantial growth over the same period last year," says a study by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a group funded by the European Commission that charts security trends for nongovernmental organizations, such as aid organizations.
There were 704 insurgent attacks from January through March this year, compared with 424 during the first three months of 2007, the report says. At least 463 civilians have been killed in the first quarter of this year, according to the report, compared with 264 in the first quarter of last year.
Several U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said that classified U.S. data corroborate the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office analysis.
The 16 attacks on aid organizations in the first quarter of 2008 that the report attributes to insurgents is double the number in the same period in 2007. There also have been increases over last year in the numbers of aid workers killed, wounded and abducted, the report says.
It says that while the five suicide bombings so far this year are a 15-month low, the bombs have become more powerful and are causing more casualties.
The report agrees with several other new studies that have found that insurgent attacks have been rising outside southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the vast majority of the 47,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops are deployed.
"Operationally, the Taliban appear to be putting more resources into attacking in provinces where allied forces are weaker and which are less accustomed to clashes," says an April 6 analysis written by John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for dNovus RDI, a Texas-based contracting firm.
"They are starting to show the manifestations of a strategy" of keeping under-strength U.S. and NATO forces tied down in the south and east while stoking instability elsewhere, McCreary said in an interview.
David Lamm, a retired Army colonel who served as chief of staff with the multinational forces command in Afghanistan, said the Taliban wanted to prevent next year's elections by avoiding confrontations with superior international forces and hitting "soft targets" such as Afghan police, government and U.N. officials and aid organizations.
The insurgents want to make "many places in Afghanistan untenable enough to make the U.N. security folks say they are not sure they can run the elections," said Lamm, now at the National Defense University in Washington.
ON THE WEB