A Taliban Surge in Afghanistan?

As U.S. and NATO troops prepare for the spring fighting season in Afghanistan, troubling news comes from neighboring Pakistan that a number of militant groups have united under a single banner and will operate under the direction of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. According to one analyst, this signals a significant reinforcement in the numbers and skill sets of Taliban fighters who may be expected to move into Afghanistan before spring.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week on Afghanistan and Pakistan, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno was asked if he thought Obama’s decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer was a good move. Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan during 2004 when things there looked much better, said that while it would be nice to know the administration’s strategy first, it was vital to get more troops into southern Afghanistan where the U.S. and NATO are currently on their heels.

Barno said Obama would eventually have to send a “substantially” larger force. Going forward, he saw U.S. strategy in Afghanistan unfolding in a variation of the now familiar “clear, hold and build” counterinsurgency approach. He termed it “stabilize, protect, build, transition”: 2009 would be a stabilize phase, a holding action to ensure Afghan national elections go off without too much trouble; 2010 would see, once more troops arrive, a counter-offensive against the Taliban and other insurgents; followed by a build phase from 2010 to 2015; and then an eventual transition to Afghan control.

But recent troubling developments across the border in Pakistan may throw efforts to stabilize into disarray and perhaps even force an acceleration of troop deployments and any plans for an offensive. Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio reported this week that three senior Taliban warlords in North and South Waziristan, areas basically ceded to the Taliban by Pakistan, formed an alliance and said they would join forces under the Council of United Mujahedeen. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also professed allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin. Omar promptly published a letter directing the new allies to stop fighting the Pakistani military and instead husband their followers for attack against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The always insightful John McCreary gives this sobering take in Nightwatch:

“These developments are significant for several reasons. First they indicate the split over strategy is publicly and officially ended. Pakistani and other efforts to exploit and enlarge rifts among the anti-government militants have failed. The movement appears to have achieved a degree of unity that eluded it for years. The Pashtun militants will fight under Omar’s flag and in Afghanistan, suggesting a significant reinforcement in the numbers and skill sets of the anti-Kabul fighters, who may be expected to move into Afghanistan before spring. Omar and his lieutenants must be planning a major surge before the US and NATO members increase their combat forces.”

Joining the new alliance is a sub-group of Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani’s network; their specialty is suicide bombings. Speaking to reporters last week, Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said intelligence pointed to the Haqqani network having carried out the coordinated suicide bombings and small arms attacks in Kabul earlier this month that killed 20. This new alliance between the Haqqani network and Omar’s band likely means more willing holy warriors for suicide attacks.

Kabul is likely to see more such attacks as a result. The increase in attacks in the Kabul area over the past year indicates an urban insurgency may be taking hold in a country that up until now has had a predominantly rural insurgency. In cities, personal contact is easier and more frequent, facilitating cross-pollination of plans, tactics and ideological fervor, as shown in the pioneering works on terrorist sociology by Marc Sageman. Targets are more plentiful in urban areas and hence more opportunities for bombers to master their skills, as bomb-making and bomb-attacks must, like all military skills, be constantly and repetitively practiced for one to become highly proficient. There are reasons guilds of skilled craftsmen historically rose in cities versus isolated rural villages.

A potential surge of Taliban fighters is alarming on many levels. As Barno said in his testimony, Afghanistan is “drifting toward failure.” The Afghan insurgency is spreading and gaining in both the intensity and complexity of its attacks. A Taliban surge could wrong-foot the U.S. and NATO just as they’re trying to beef up security in advance of elections scheduled for late August. Coalition forces are already stretched thin. The Afghan Army “lacks sufficient numbers to respond to multiple attacks across the country,” admitted Afghan Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, speaking in Washington this week at an event sponsored by the Center for a New American Security.

This is a critical year for Afghanistan. The fighting season begins in a matter of weeks as snows melt and the high-mountain passes open. Delegations from Afghanistan and Pakistan are in town to meet with their American counterparts. If ever there was a need for a coordinated strategy to counter the Taliban and other insurgents on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border it is now.