Taliban flourishng, Pentagon reports

Attacks in Afghanistan grow in number, complexity, report says

June 28, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - After nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban-led insurgency is flourishing, the Defense Department indicated in a gloomy new report yesterday, saying the insurgents are likely to accelerate their attacks and expand into new regions in northern and western regions of the country.

The Pentagon's assessment came as U.S. casualties in Afghanistan rose to 23 in June, the second-deadliest month for American forces since the U.S. invaded weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Attacks using improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, rose 35 percent last year, reaching 2,616 attacks, according to the report, which provided no other measures of violence or data from previous years.

The report echoed previous grim assessments by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others, including retired four-star Marine Gen. James Jones, about the lack of progress in the U.S.-led war and Afghanistan's deep-rooted problems of violence, extremism, corruption and narcotics.

The United Nations reported this week, for example, that Afghanistan's opium harvest reached a record high in 2007, and that the area under poppy cultivation actually increased 17 percent despite efforts to eradicate the crop.

Yesterday's Pentagon report acknowledged that the concerted counter-narcotics campaign there has "not been successful."

Training and equipping Afghan's security forces have been hampered by corruption, a shortage of U.S. and other international trainers, and by what the report said was "a lack of unity of effort within the international community."

"Police corruption and misconduct remain a problem," the Pentagon said in its first semiannual report about progress in Afghanistan, mandated by Congress last year.

Gates, among other U.S. officials, has been highly critical of the failure by major European allies to provide trainers and other support for Afghanistan's struggling army and police.

The United States has about 33,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, while about 40 other countries have contributed a total of 29,150. France is sending an additional 700 troops this summer, and Germany has said it may send another 1,000 troops in the fall.

At a European security conference earlier this month, Gates acknowledged that he has been "a big nag" on Europe's reluctance to send enough forces to Afghanistan. "But for NATO to continue to be tied up in politics ... that are irrelevant to whether we are making progress in Afghanistan, I just don't have patience any more," Gates said.

The upsurge in violence in Afghanistan has coincided with a decline in violence in Iraq, and Gates noted that in May for the first time, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq. But the United States has more than four times as many troops in Iraq as Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters this week that violence there had increased 40 percent over the level of last spring.

Schloesser said the attacks by Taliban insurgents are increasingly sophisticated: rather than a simple roadside bomb being detonated by a convoy, his troops are now seeing roadside bomb detonations followed immediately by intense enemy small-arms fire from both sides of the road, and a second roadside bomb being detonated as U.S. reinforcements arrive.

But in combat air operations over Afghanistan, reported daily by the U.S. Air Force regional headquarters, U.S. and allied strike fighters are dropping bombs and firing rockets in dozens of locations in eastern and southern Afghanistan. This week, coalition aircraft flew between 45 and 60 close air support missions each day.

A U.S. Army mental health assessment this spring said that American troops in Afghanistan face a more dangerous and violent environment than in Iraq, and consequently are experiencing higher levels of stress.

According to the latest Pentagon data, 508 American military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since October 2001. Before this month, the highest monthly total was in June 2005, when 25 troops were killed.

The most recent casualty reported by the Defense Department this month was Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Strickland, 25, of Labelle, Fla. He was killed June 25 in Helmand province, a major Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Strickland was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The Pentagon report's assessment of corruption echoed remarks this week by Afghanistan's attorney general, who told a gathering in Washington that "we have many people who are above the law [and] we cannot touch them."

Abdul Jabbar Sabit, at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, said powerful warlords and drug lords, as well as senior government ministers "are too powerful for the police to arrest them."

Some of the warlords, who command well-paid militias and tight-knit sectarian communities, could "destabilize the country very quickly, and that is why we have not touched them," he said.

The Pentagon report also acknowledged that international development aid has lagged. International donors provide 80 percent of the government's expenses.

At a major donors' conference in Paris this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai unveiled a long-term development plan that he said would cost $50 billion. The United States has pledged $14 billion toward that goal, but total international promises of aid reached only half of Afghanistan's goal.

Since 2001, the United States has spent about $23 billion in Afghanistan, most of it in training and equipping Afghan security forces. Total international assistance has reached $30 billion, but U.S. officials and non-governmental reports have said much of that aid has been wasted and poorly coordinated.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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