Taliban's Shifting Tactics Define Afghanistan Conflict

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Second of a five-part series.

A Series Overview

Seven years after U.S. troops and their Afghan allies ousted the Taliban, the Islamist militia is far from beaten. This five-part series explores the state, and future, of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban.

Afghanistan map i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Afghanistan map
Alice Kreit, NPR

The war in Afghanistan is as much about perception as it is about conflict. Last year, more people died in terrorist-related violence than at any time since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Yet U.S., NATO and Afghan troops have made large swaths of the country safer than they've been in years.

Still, a growing number of Afghans fear that the insurgents — not their government or the NATO-led coalition — will ultimately win.

Barreling along in an armored SUV in the southern province of Kandahar, Gov. Asadullah Khalid describes how security here is better than it's ever been.

Never mind that he narrowly escaped death the week before when his heavily armed convoy hit a roadside bomb. There was a second attack just days later.

"[The] situation is getting better day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute," Khalid says. "Last year, we had daily suicide attacks or explosions in the city but, thank God, now three or four months we don't have one suicide attack."

The following morning, that record was broken.

Taking Advantage of Weaknesses

A suspected Taliban suicide bomber killed more than 100 people at a crowded dog fight in Kandahar city. It was the deadliest such bombing in Afghanistan's troubled history.

This is how the war looks in Afghanistan these days. There are fewer battles, yet it's far bloodier in the country than at any time since 2001.

"Today we are seeing an insurgency that is making about half the country largely off limits to foreign development and government outreach," says Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Nathan says that doesn't mean Taliban fighters or other militants are controlling those areas. Instead, insurgents are taking advantage of Afghanistan's weaknesses — like a government that, by U.S. intelligence estimates, controls no more than one third of the country.

And in areas it does control, the government provides little in the way of basic services, like electricity. There's staggering unemployment. And little law and order, given a fledgling national police force that is widely seen as inept and corrupt.

At the same time, there is public debate in Western capitals over how long their troops should stay here.

'Insurgents Have Time'

Nathan says that and the chaos are fertile ground for the Taliban, which has discovered that it's easier to paralyze the nation with bombs than to fight Western and Afghan troops.

"There's a saying here that foreigners have the watches and insurgents have the time," she says. "They're not some standing army sweeping up from the south. They are not going to overrun Kabul anytime soon, but they hope to just create a general air of instability and wear the other side out."

The Taliban's hit-and-run strategy has allowed the militants to take their fight to the north, east and west — areas that are not their traditional strongholds.

They've also paved the way for drug smugglers and criminals to step up their activities. All of which makes people feel unsafe.

That's frustrating to U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, who commands the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. He has watched victories on the battlefield during the past year overshadowed by suicide attacks like the one in mid-January at a luxury hotel a stone's throw from the presidential palace in Kabul.

"We have a certain amount of success here and it's ho-hum, that's what everybody expected," McNeill says. "He sets off a bomb, it is headline news around the world. OK, I got it. If that's what I have to work with, I acknowledge that and will continue to work it. But let's go back to late 2006, early 2007. Resurgent Taliban, he's coming, he's a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, and you'll have to admit, that just didn't happen in 2007."

A More Wary Public

Afghan lawmaker Helaluddin Helal says that doesn't matter. Helal, a former general, says the Taliban tactics have badly damaged NATO's reputation in Afghan eyes. So has the growing separation between the Afghan people and their government.

He says people are far less inclined now to report suspected bombers in their midst. Not because they support the Taliban, but because they fear that the police can't protect them if the Taliban comes after them.

"What NATO needs to do is step up efforts to build the Afghan police and army, not simply by adding numbers, but by ensuring quality," Helal says.

McNeill says that will take time. He says the Afghan Ministry of Defense estimates that its army won't be ready for at least four more years.

"I believe their capacity will have increased enough within the next year and a half to two years that maybe increasing the size of the international forces is not only not necessary, but might not be desirable," McNeill says.

"So the issue is, can we manage the risk in that period," he says. "Last year, we did. This year, I think we probably can again. But if anybody wants to make sure that we get this done, then sure, we need a faster rate of progress, and certainly in the security line, you need more force to induce that faster rate of progress."

The Taliban has given some hint of its own plans. In a recent interview on an Arabic-language Web site, a Taliban commander threatened to increase attacks on Kabul — not only through suicide bombings, but by targeting roads in the north and east in a bid to cut off the capital.

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