In Afghanistan, A Shifting, Ever-Moving Enemy

First of three reports examining key questions shaping U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, a look at how the U.S. is revising its goals.

In Afghanistan, the security situation is bad and getting worse, according to the head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples told Congress on Tuesday that the number of insurgent attacks more than doubled last year, with "increases in suicide bombings, the use of improvised explosive devices and small-arms attacks."

More than 17,000 additional U.S. troops are headed to Afghanistan to try to change those statistics. But military commanders concede they're facing a complex and increasingly proficient insurgency — and it's not always easy to tell who the enemy is.

The good news, defense officials say, is that the overall number of insurgents does not appear to be growing. Gen. David McKiernan says the bad news is that they're getting better.

"This past year, they've increasingly conducted smaller-scale, complex, asymmetric attacks against softer targets," McKiernan says. "Against government targets, against convoys, against police."

Far From The Only Rebel Force

McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is leading the fight against what he calls a "very resilient" enemy.

The Taliban, for example, has seen splits and the emergence of different factions since the group was driven from power in 2001. But intelligence officials say the supreme leader remains Mullah Omar, known as the one-eyed cleric, who runs the Taliban from a base in southwestern Pakistan.

From there, it operates a shadow government that rules much of southern Afghanistan, making the Taliban the largest, most prominent insurgent group.

Still, it's far from the only rebel force, says Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp. think tank.

He mentions Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami organization and the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, and the list keeps going. "There are also Pashtun tribes, subtribes, clans," Jones says. "There are also criminal organizations, including drug-trafficking organizations, illicit timber and gem traders."

Retired Gen. Dan McNeill, who until last year was the senior NATO commander in Afghanistan, says it's misleading to use the term "Taliban" as shorthand for the insurgency.

McNeill says you can be standing there, watching a group of people, "and they look a lot like insurgents, but they also deal in the narcotics business. Very difficult some days to judge if they're ideologues who are waging an insurgency or if they're just narco sorts of people who are advantaging the situation."

An Ever-Moving Target

Another problem for the U.S. military is that the insurgency is an ever-moving target. Alliances between armed groups form, shift, break down.

Al-Qaida, for example, is stepping up its presence in Afghanistan, Maples told Congress on Tuesday.

McKiernan, the top ground commander, says he is seeing evidence of that.

"Sometimes they provide funding. They provide facilitators, weapons, IED materials. They recruit suicide bombers and organize them and send them sometimes across the border into Afghanistan," McKiernan says.

In another disturbing development, there are signs the Pakistani Taliban led by Baitullah Mehsud is shifting its focus to Afghanistan. Mehsud's group is based inside Pakistan and, up to now, has mostly attacked Pakistani targets. But both U.S. and Pakistani analysts believe that Mehsud has now decided to concentrate on attacking Americans.

And there are players such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammed, militant groups that traditionally focused on the conflict in Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Taiba was blamed for last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and Jones of the Rand Corp. says its militants are now showing up on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

"What some of these militant groups see in Afghanistan is a way to deploy their soldiers to get battlefield experience," Jones says. "The way [Osama bin Laden] was interested in the Soviet wars, in bringing a whole range of individuals to Afghanistan, to gain battlefield experience that could then be sent abroad."

All of this adds up to a picture of an enemy that is extremely complicated. It also adds up to a tough fight.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls Afghanistan the "greatest military challenge" now facing the U.S. He also says the U.S. needs to be realistic about what it can achieve there.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.