Taliban numbers unaffected by allied troop surge
Officials say estimates belie progress made
BRUSSELS — A massive effort by US and NATO forces — including offensives in the insurgent heartland and targeted assassinations of rebel leaders — has failed to dent Taliban numerical strength over the past year, according to military and diplomatic officials.
A NATO official said this week that the alliance estimates the current number of insurgent fighters at up to 25,000, confirming figures provided earlier by several military officers and diplomats.
That number is the same as a year ago, before the arrival of an additional 40,000 US and allied troops, and before the alliance launched a massive campaign to restore government control in Helmand Province and around the city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
The US-led International Security Assistance Force has kept official figures of enemy strength under wraps throughout the nine-year war. But non-US military assessments have tracked the growth of the Taliban from about 500 armed fighters in 1993 to 25,000 in early 2010.
“These are rough estimates, because they’re not just standing around to be counted,’’ said the NATO official who could not be named in line with standing regulations.
The Taliban are pitted against about 140,000 troops — two-thirds of them Americans — and more than 200,000 members of the government’s security forces.
This gives the allies a numerical advantage of at least 12 to 1 — one of the highest such ratios in modern guerrilla wars. At the height of the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies had an advantage of roughly 5 to 1 over their Communist foes.
President Obama has doubled US troop numbers since taking office two years ago. That number will rise further as more than 1,000 Marines will be sent to Afghanistan this month to try to solidify progress in the south before troop reductions begin in July, US military officials said yesterday.
The majority of the forces will be sent to Helmand Province, where 20,000 Marines have made gains against the Taliban but where fighting remains intense in insurgent strongholds like Sangin.
Officials at the Florida-based US Central Command said the Marines were being sent to take advantage of what is traditionally a winter hiatus for the Taliban and to try to set conditions for the fighting season that begins in the spring.
Despite the Taliban’s ability to make up for battlefield losses, US and NATO commanders say hundreds of Taliban have been killed, and others forced to abandon the movement’s bastions in southern and eastern provinces.
Meanwhile, the training of a 300,000-strong government security force is said to be going according to the plan adopted at NATO’s summit in November. It calls for a gradual hand-over to Afghan troops and initial withdrawals of foreign forces by the middle of this year, concluding in 2014, when security throughout the nation will be transferred entirely to government forces.
“As we look back on 2010, we see that we have made hard-fought progress,’’ said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general. “Our strategy is sound and we have in place the necessary resources to accomplish it.’’
Military analysts generally agree that international troops have seized the initiative in the war.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University, said the unchanged number of insurgents did not reflect the reality on the ground, as the Taliban had sustained heavy blows over the past year.
“We have taken hundreds of their leaders off the battlefields,’’ he said by phone.
“Next year will be clearly crucial as the Taliban try to regain lost territory around Kandahar and in Helmand, and we’ll see if they can make up those losses,’’ he said. “We will also see if we’ve been able to create the institutions — the government, police, and army — there that can sustain themselves.’’
But other analysts caution that the gains could be reversed because the Taliban have simply retreated in the face of superior forces. Employing guerrilla tactics, they melted away into other areas, spreading the rebellion into new parts of the country.
Jovo Kapicic, a retired Montenegrin general who fought in the first modern guerrilla war in occupied Yugoslavia during World War II said it was never a problem for insurgents to make up losses in manpower despite massive losses.
“Guerrillas who enjoy the support of the population can always bounce back,’’ he added.
The Taliban are reported to be enjoying growing support among the population, which is exhausted by nine years of war and increasingly opposed to the foreign troop presence in their country.
“Many people now perceive ISAF as an occupying force,’’ said Anne Jones, a humanitarian activist and author who has lived in Afghanistan. “[They] are no longer part of the solution, they have become the problem.’’
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.