Insurgent Success In Afghanistan Is Mystifying

The insurgency in Afghanistan is getting stronger. According to a leaked assessment of the war, Taliban-led insurgents either control or are fighting in a "significant portion of the country." It's hard to understand why because insurgent fighters are vastly outnumbered by U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces, and their technology is inferior.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

A call for more troops in Afghanistan raises a key question for the United States. The question is how the Afghan war grew so difficult.

WERTHEIMER: According to an assessment from the U.S. commander, insurgents now fight in or control a significant portion of the country. That's the situation after almost eight years of American effort. In a moment, we'll ask about the political dilemma for the commander in chief. We begin with what's known about the enemy.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: In many ways, the success of the insurgents is mystifying. Insurgent fighters are vastly outnumbered by the U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces arrayed against them. And their technology is inferior, as made plain by this recent exchange at a Senate hearing between Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, Arizona): How many tanks do the Taliban have?

Admiral MIKE MULLEN(Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I'm not aware they have any.

Sen. GRAHAM: How many air planes?

Admiral MULLEN: None.

Sen. GRAHAM: Well, how are they doing this?

KELLY: It's their country, Admiral Mullen replied. And the insurgents excel at intimidating Afghan civilians, which makes them unpopular. Senator Graham pressed on.

Sen. GRAHAM: So, they are not held in high regard. They don't have an air force, they don't have any armor. But they're winning. So, that makes me conclude something is going awry in Afghanistan.

KELLY: In his report General McChrystal attempts to lay out what's gone awry. He describes an insurgency that's well-funded and well-organized. McChrystal also points out that insurgents have figured out how to use Afghan prisons as a training ground. He says Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are able to hatch plans from inside prison and recruit new members, quote "there are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan" end quote. General McChrystal also describes an enemy that uses its downtime efficiently. Every winter, McChrystal writes, the Taliban conducts a formal campaign review, after which, Taliban leader Mullah Omar announces his guidance and plans for the coming year. Combat usually slows in the winter when heavy snows arrive. But McChrystal says, it's time to stop thinking about the Afghan war as an annual cyclical campaign. Admiral Mullen made the point in his recent Senate testimony.

Admiral MULLEN: In discussions with General McChrystal, there's a term that we use and have used in Afghanistan which is the fighting season. But in fact we don't believe there is a fighting season. We think it's a 365 day a year fight for the people.

KELLY: A fight against not one insurgency, but three, that all intersect in the war zone. The three insurgencies, ranked by McChrystal in order of the threat they pose, are number one: the Quetta Shura Taliban. This is the most familiar group, the one headed by Mullah Omar and operating from the Pakistani city of Quetta. Mullah Omar's group has established an elaborate alternative government, McChrystal writes, including shadow governors for most provinces and Islamic courts.

Second: there's the Haqqani network, which gets its money mostly from Pakistani and Gulf Arab donors, and whose links with al-Qaida are growing. The third is the group led by former Mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who quote "aims to negotiate a major role in a future Taliban government." There are tensions among all these players. Tensions that McChrystal thinks can be exploited. The relationship among these three groups has shifted over time.

Dr. AMIN TARZI (Director, Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University): This is not the same group that we defeated in 2001.

KELLY: That's Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East studies at Marine Corps University. Tarzi says the McChrystal report makes an important contribution by recognizing that while these groups pursue their own individual strategies, they do share some common goals.

Dr. TARZI: They do have an agenda. And their agenda is basically to win over, either by force or by acts of governor's injustice, the Afghan population.

KELLY: In his report, General McChrystal concludes while the situation is serious, success is still achievable. But right now, despite the best efforts of Afghan and Western security forces over the last eight years, quote "the insurgents currently have the initiative".

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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