TOPICS > Nation

Resurgent Taliban May Step Up Attacks, Pentagon Says

June 27, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
Loading the player...
A report released by the Pentagon Friday showed growing instability in Afghanistan and a continuing rise in Taliban forces. A reporter and a regional expert size up new security threats and discuss the new report.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: For U.S. and coalition troops fighting in Afghanistan, a grim milestone this week. With more than 40 troops killed, June now ranks as the highest single month for casualties since the war began seven years ago. In all, more than 115 have died this year.

Militants, including a resurgent Taliban, have become increasingly dangerous and bold. An attack on a military convoy west of Kabul yesterday took the lives of three coalition troops. The fighters displayed captured weapons.

Two weeks ago, dozens of Taliban attacked a prison outside Kandahar with a truck bomb and rockets. Some 600 prisoners broke free and later overran a nearby district. NATO forces, along with 700 Afghan national army troops, eventually fought off the militants.

Coalition forces are also focused on another problem: the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pentagon cites a growing and uncontrolled militant presence there and says fighters cross into Afghanistan and kill Americans.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday put some blame on the Pakistani government.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: What has happened is that, as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups by the Pakistani government, there was the opportunity — the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups, and they’ve, therefore, been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, in a gruesome show of anger, thousands watched as Pakistani militants publicly executed two Afghans they claimed were spies for U.S. forces.

Today’s Pentagon report details the resurgence of the Taliban and the increasing violence. And we look at all of this now with David Wood, national security correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. He was embedded for six weeks this spring with a Marine battalion in southern Afghanistan.

And Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, he frequently travels to Afghanistan and has authored a study of the war there.

Militants have re-strengthened

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
Iraq really looms so large over at the war in Afghanistan, in terms of both sucking out, you know, the available American troops, but also the intellectual capacity you need to run a very complicated campaign like Afghanistan has become.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Seth Jones, starting with you, why the upsurge in violence? What's going on?

SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: Well, I think there are two major reasons for the upsurge of violence. One is there continue to be challenges in governance, that is, the Afghan government's ability to provide essential services in rural areas of the country and to protect local Afghans. Especially, the quality of Afghan national police continues to be a problem.

Second is outside support. That is, I think the levels of U.S. and other NATO forces continue to be significantly sort of underperforming. And second is outside support, I think, from groups which have sanctuary in Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Wood, when we talk about the insurgents, who are we talking about? It's not just the Taliban.

DAVID WOOD, National Security Correspondent, Baltimore Sun: Good question. A very, very complex group of both Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Taliban. There's a lot of sort of traditional warlord militias mixed in there.

And, of course, the drug trade -- Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. I think they earned about $5 billion last year in street value of that product. So there's an enormous amount of crime, criminal elements there, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: As far as the Taliban itself, though, that Pentagon report talks about how they were able to regroup and gain strength.

DAVID WOOD: It's really devastating. I mean, here we are, seven years, almost seven years after the U.S. intervened militarily, threw the Taliban out, and then the U.S. really got distracted in Iraq.

And Iraq really looms so large over at the war in Afghanistan, in terms of both sucking out, you know, the available American troops, but also the intellectual capacity you need to run a very complicated campaign like Afghanistan has become. We just don't have it.

Insurgent groups fill voids

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
What we've seen, actually, is a range of Afghanistan's neighbors -- Iran has sent small amounts of ammunition, weapons into the Taliban. You've seen that also coming from Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, in terms of the resurgence of the Taliban?

SETH JONES: Well, I think one of the historical patterns of Afghanistan is that its neighbors, when it's most weakest, have sent weapons and fighters into that.

And so what we've seen, actually, is a range of Afghanistan's neighbors -- Iran has sent small amounts of ammunition, weapons into the Taliban. You've seen that also coming from Pakistan. The Russians and Indians have provided support to some of the northern groups, as well.

So what you see, though, is a proliferation of insurgent groups, and not just what David said, too, but as you move up the Afghan-Pakistan border, you see a range of groups like Hezbaslami, TNSM, a range of groups, in particular groups that have also been fighting the Indians, like Lashkar-e-Taiba have moved to the Afghan front.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

DAVID WOOD: I think it's also important to realize that one reason that the Taliban had been able to expand their influence in Afghanistan is because there has been a vacuum there.

The U.S. has, I think, about 33,000 troops. There's about 29,000 coalition troops. It's nowhere near enough to provide the kind of security that you really need. And so the Taliban have just moved into that void, and I think that explains where we are today.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the Afghan government?

DAVID WOOD: Very difficult for them. One of the interesting things about Afghanistan is that, when the Soviets came in, in the 1980s, there was a huge amount of human capital that just fled the country and really never have come back.

And so one thing that becomes very apparent in Afghanistan is there just aren't very many people who are capable of running a government. And so, in the outlying districts and provinces, you find very, very thin layers of government, and they're just not able to provide either the government services, or certainly the security that you need.

Afghan government lost support

Seth Jones
Rand Corporation
there has been some polling done in places like eastern Afghanistan and southern Afghanistan. And what they indicate, what the polls indicate is still fairly low levels of support for the Taliban.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the population? Is it clear at all how much support there is for the insurgency?

SETH JONES: Well, there has been some polling done in places like eastern Afghanistan and southern Afghanistan. And what they indicate, what the polls indicate is still fairly low levels of support for the Taliban. In most cases, what we've seen is support that's in the teens.

So the issue is actually not significant amounts of popular support for Taliban as much as we've seen decreases in support for the Afghan government. And so, in that sense, this makes governance, Afghan governance, particularly important.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see when you were on the ground with the Marines, in terms of the relationship with the local population?

DAVID WOOD: Well, not much. You know, I was with a Marine battalion, a very, very capable, big, heavy fighting force.

And when they moved into an area, really, they were overwhelming in terms of -- you know, for example, I'd go with them into a farming area, and we'd really crush a lot of crops just as we moved. A battalion like that is a very blunt instrument, so it's -- and very little direct communication with the local folks.

In fact, an interesting thing was that, as we moved into this area, we started taking fire from people who -- I thought it was very hard to tell. Are they Chechens? Are they really hard-core Taliban? Are they, you know, farm kids sort of protecting their farms and doing this sort of...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it wasn't clear who the enemy was at that point?

DAVID WOOD: We had no -- we had no idea who they were. Very hard to tell.

Coordination falters among allies

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
And another problem ... is that, when you have military forces, for example, U.S. Marines and British forces, operating together, a lot of their equipment is either not compatible or downright hostile to each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are the commanders -- how much coordination is there between U.S. forces, NATO? The commanders, do they have -- are they clear on their goals at this point?

SETH JONES: Well, I think they're clear on some goals. But what you have with an alliance that's fighting is multiple different forces on the ground.

So for any of the commanders, either in NATO itself or in the U.S. chain of command, you also have a range of different special operations forces, conventional forces, different countries fighting, Afghan national army, and Afghan national police, and intelligence units on the ground.

So it becomes extremely difficult in some cases -- and some of these are very sensitive missions -- to figure out who is where at what time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you see this?

DAVID WOOD: Yes, I did. And another problem, Jeff, if I may, is that, when you have military forces, for example, U.S. Marines and British forces, operating together, a lot of their equipment is either not compatible or downright hostile to each other.

For example, all modern American and British vehicles carry IED jammers. Well, the British jammers jam the American equipment and vice versa. So, you know, that's one of the things that they had to sort out that becomes very difficult just on a tactical level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally about -- we've talked about the Pakistan border and the porousness there. Is there any sense or any movement that U.S. pressure is having any impact or any sense of dealing with that?

SETH JONES: Not at the moment. I think, at this point, the relationship between the United States, and particularly in Pakistan, is probably at one of its recent historical lows.

And that's unfortunate, because ultimately, for U.S. and other NATO efforts to succeed in Afghanistan, it needs Pakistani support. It has always needed it historically.

And so there really has to be a way of finding a way to work with Pakistan, to cooperate in dealing with these sanctuaries.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Seth Jones and David Wood, thank you both very much.

DAVID WOOD: You're welcome.

SETH JONES: Thank you.