KABUL, Afghanistan -- Radical Islamist Taliban forces, shattered and ejected from Afghanistan by the U.S. military five years ago, are poised for a major offensive against U.S. troops and undermanned NATO forces, prompting American commanders here to issue an urgent appeal for a new Marine Corps battalion to reinforce the American positions.
NATO's 30,000 troops in Afghanistan are supposed to have taken responsibility for security operations across the country. But Taliban attacks have risen sharply, and senior U.S. officers here describe the NATO operation as weak, hobbled by a shortage of manpower and equipment and by restrictions put on the troops by their home capitals.
The accelerating war here and the critical need for troops vastly complicate the crumbling security picture across the region - from Afghanistan, where the United States chose to strike back after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, to Iraq, where American troops have been unable in almost four years of fighting to establish basic security and quell a bloody sectarian war.
As a last-ditch effort, President Bush is expected to announce this week the dispatch of thousands of additional troops to Iraq as a stopgap measure, an order that Pentagon officials say would strain the Army and Marine Corps as they struggle to man both wars.
Already, a U.S. Army infantry battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks in order to deploy to Iraq.
According to Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata and other senior U.S. commanders here, that will happen just as the Taliban is expected to unleash a major campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar. The official said the Taliban intend to seize Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the place where the group was organized in the 1990s.
"We anticipate significant events there next spring," said Tata.
At stake, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is the key U.S. strategic imperative of preventing al-Qaida and Taliban forces from establishing terrorist sanctuaries, as Afghanistan was in the late 1990s, when al-Qaida launched operations to bomb U.S. embassies and warships and eventually hatched the Sept. 11 plot.
"This could be a pivotal year" for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview after a recent series of briefings here. "I don't think they see that they are near defeat or anything. I just think they sense they are vulnerable to inroads being made" against what had been a relatively stable country.
Despite the presence of about 30,000 NATO troops - roughly 10 percent short of what its member nations had pledged to provide - Taliban attacks on U.S., allied and Afghan forces more than tripled in the past year, from 1,632 in 2005 to 5,388 in 2006, according to U.S. military intelligence officials. Suicide bomb attacks leapt from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006. Significantly, direct-fire attacks also more than tripled, from three per day in 2005 to more than 10 per day in 2006, indicating an increasingly emboldened Taliban willing to attack head-on.
With NATO unable or unwilling to stem the rising violence, the Taliban are pressing their advantage. Rather than withdrawing to regroup over the winter, intelligence officials and combat commanders here said, the Taliban forces - clad in new cold-weather boots and fleece jackets - are fighting through the bitter cold months.
"It is bleak," said Col. Chris Haas, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.
"The gains we have made over the past few years are mostly gone," said a bearded Special Operations officer, fresh in from advising Afghan army units in battle with 600 to 700 well-equipped Taliban fighters.
Conway said U.S. commanders understand that the Afghan war is an "economy of force" operation, a military term for a mission that is given minimal resources because it is a secondary priority, in this case behind Iraq.
Nevertheless, Conway said, he favored dispatching a Marine battalion here, a decision that must be approved by the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and by the president.
"It has to be made pretty soon," Conway said. "We can't jerk the troops around and say, `Hey, oh, by the way, you're going to Afghanistan in February.'"
At the moment, Taliban fighters "are incapable of holding ground," said a U.S. military intelligence officer, and when they go toe-to-toe with U.S. combat forces, "they get their clocks cleaned." But after battle, "they are able to regenerate" with fresh troops and equipment, and they are wielding "more sophisticated and newer weaponry," said the officer, who declined to elaborate.