| ||Afghan Attacks Jump After Long Drop|
The Wall Street Journal
By Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhil
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Coalition Blames Bad Poppy Harvest, Points to Broader Drop So Far This Year
KABUL - Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan rose in April and May, the U.S.-led coalition reported, indicating a Taliban comeback after months of declining activity.
Insurgents launched nearly 3,000 attacks around the country in May, up 21% from May 2011, the International Security Assistance Force said Monday. The coalition statistics, which tally everything from rockets and suicide bombings to small-arms fire and roadside bombs, also showed a modest year-on-year rise in insurgent attacks in April, with just under 2,000 violent incidents.
This violence reversed 11 consecutive months during which insurgent attacks dropped from the previous year's levels, a metric that coalition commanders have frequently highlighted as evidence that the Taliban had lost the initiative in the war.
The recent jump in attacks, by contrast, shows that the Taliban remain far from defeated ahead of the planned withdrawal of international troops in 2014. This year's Taliban's spring offensive has included high-profile attacks, including the storming last week of a popular lakeside resort outside Kabul.
"Every day, 20 to 25 of our youths sacrifice their lives for this homeland and are martyred," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a special parliamentary address last week, noting the recent surge in attacks on Afghan forces.
In Washington, defense officials noted that despite the large increase in the month of May, the overall level of enemy attacks remains lower for the year. "Compared to last year, enemy-initiated attacks are still down by 6%," said a defense official.
ISAF attributed the rise in the number of attacks to an earlier-than-normal start to the annual fighting season.
Insurgent groups depend in part on revenue from the opium trade, and the fighting season usually begins in earnest only after the poppy harvest is complete. The number of attacks tends to dip at the beginning of the harvest followed by a few weeks of fewer incidents, according to ISAF.
But a poppy blight cut short this year's production, and the reduced poppy harvest led to the increase in violence in May compared with the year before, defense officials said. "This year's harvest started later and finished earlier in the most poppy-prevalent areas of Afghanistan compared to last year," an ISAF release said.
The report also indicated that attacks rose in areas where opium isn't heavily cultivated.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied any connection between insurgent strategy and the opium harvest. "We had been reserving all our military strength to the spring offensive," he said. According to Mr. Mujahid, insurgents had varied their tactics depending on the region of the country.
"In the south...we focus more on land mines. In the east, we do confrontations and ambushes. In the central provinces, we use mass martyrdom-seeking attacks," he said, referring to coordinated assaults with suicide attackers.
Earlier this year, Taliban representatives had vowed to step up activities during the upcoming fighting season.
The latest coalition report was largely "spin," said military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, because it failed to take into account the full Taliban resurgence. The report, he said, focused on direct attacks on U.S. and allied forces, while overlooking what he called the more important Taliban efforts to dominate the population through low-level violence and intimidation.
"What they assume is that you measure things largely in terms of the enemy's willingness to directly attack ISAF and the better ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces]," Mr. Cordesman said. "What they don't count is that the strategy has shifted to intimidating the local population [and] riding out the withdrawal of NATO forces."
Several Afghan security and military officials, in interviews, played down the recent rise in attacks. The statistics don't reflect insurgents' capabilities of holding territory or overrun Afghan military outposts, said Col. Mohammad Numan Hatifi, a spokesman for Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan.
"The insurgents can't attack bases and can't stop supply convoys, which shows that they are not strengthening," he said. "If they could attack on a battalion or could continuously fight for a day, we would have said they are strengthening, but now they are not."
Mohammad Ismail, a deputy police chief in southern Helmand province, said military operations in the past three years had significantly weakened the insurgency. "The enemy has lost its support among the people," he said. "They only have the support of poppy cultivators and traffickers."
An optimistic explanation of the recent rise in insurgent attacks might be that this violence is the unexpected outcome of U.S. and coalition efforts to capture or kill the insurgency's middle management.
"It may be that the increase in enemy-initiated attacks are a result of more poorly trained, inexperienced fighters who lack discipline and simply engage whenever an opportunity presents itself," said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. The sheer volume of these attacks, he added, "says nothing about their effectiveness or desired intent."
U.S. officials have discussed a possible residual force that may remain in Afghanistan for several years after 2014 to conduct counterterrorism and training missions. —Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.