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Recent reports indicate the Taliban and al-Qaida are regrouping in preparation for a major escalation of fighting in Afghanistan, according to Stratfor, the global intelligence company.
Moreover, Stratfor has received intelligence that resistance to U.S. forces in Afghanistan has spread well beyond these groups, threatening a steep increase in fighting over the coming months.
The editor of London's Al-Quds Al-Arabi magazine, Abdel-Bari Atwan, who reportedly is close to associates of Osama bin Laden, told Reuters Tuesday that bin Laden is firmly back in control of a regrouped and reorganized al-Qaida.
The editor said the shock and disruption of the initial U.S. attack against the group has worn off and that al-Qaida has regained confidence, re-established ties with the Taliban and is preparing for a protracted war of attrition in Afghanistan.
This follows the airing by the Middle East Broadcasting Co. July 9 of a message – purportedly from an al-Qaida spokesman – warning of impending guerrilla warfare and assassinations. The statement claimed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was alive and well and that the Taliban was reorganizing and preparing for guerrilla war.
In the absence of any major attacks since Sept. 11, Afghanistan presents a prime venue for demonstrating that both organizations are operational and capable of inflicting serious damage on the United States. A renewed war there also plays to both groups' strengths and doctrines.
Afghanistan offers all the communications, logistics, support, cover and terrain familiarity these groups lack elsewhere. Both groups say the Afghan resistance in the 1980s was responsible not only for repulsing the Soviet invasion but also for contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. They will jump at the opportunity to trap another superpower in the same grinder.
Osama bin Laden has said that al-Qaida was preparing for a decade-long campaign in Somalia, akin to the Afghan precedent, when U.S. troops precipitously withdrew after a disastrous mission in 1993.
A protracted war in Afghanistan also offers al-Qaida a much higher chance of immediate and repeated success against U.S. targets than complex bombing operations abroad. It allows the group to strike again quickly without having to sort out its international financial and communications networks or trust that its sleeper agents have not been compromised.
Put up or shut up
Both al-Qaida and the Taliban need to strike visibly and soon, as they are beginning to lose credibility among their followers. Repeated al-Qaida warnings of imminent attacks have been followed by little or no action.
On July 15, Atwan told Reuters that bin Laden was alive but that he would not appear again until his followers attacked the United States. He cited al-Qaida sources as saying that an attack would come soon to exploit Arab anger over U.S. actions in support of Israel and against Iraq.
In a July 9 interview with the Algerian newspaper Al Youm, al-Qaida chief spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said al-Qaida were men of action, not words, and that the group was casing American and Jewish targets in the United States and abroad and would strike again soon. He also claimed al-Qaida would attack the "puppet government" of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Even earlier on June 2, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat published an assertion by Abu Ghaith that an attack was coming soon, as great as that which had come before.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan are easier for al-Qaida and the Taliban to strike than American targets in the United States or abroad. The intelligence war is in the militants' favor in Afghanistan, given that they can blend in with the local populace.
The militants apparently have penetrated U.S. operations as well. A recently completed campaign called Operation Mountain Sweep turned up little, amid suspicions that the militants had been tipped off to U.S. and coalition plans. U.S. and British troops stationed at Bagram Air Base are under orders to destroy items identifying their families, as the base is believed to be penetrated by al-Qaida sympathizers. Hundreds of Afghans work in the camp, and an al-Qaida spokesman said July 9 that the group had succeeded in penetrating its enemies' bases.
The militants enjoy shelter inside Afghanistan as well as in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. They have internal lines of supply and ample weapons caches. In a July 24 Pentagon press briefing, Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. summed up the situation when he said, "almost anyplace we go, we find some type of weapons."
At the same time, U.S. counterterrorist efforts in the United States and abroad continue to disrupt al-Qaida's global communications, transportation and logistics networks, and the group cannot be sure their operatives remain hidden. Al-Qaida will continue to attempt attacks inside the United States, but it cannot count on success there the way it can in Afghanistan.
Worse than reported
U.S. forces inside Afghanistan already are under constant attack, and according to multiple sources are taking more casualties than are officially admitted.
Sources in the Afghan government said guerrillas, believed to be Pushtun Taliban members, attacked U.S. troops in the Zawar region of Paktia province on the night of Aug. 4, with several U.S. troops and several attackers allegedly killed. The Pentagon report of the same incident confirmed that a patrol came under heavy fire at that time in Paktia province but said that only two attackers were killed.
Similarly, Afghan government sources reported that a rocket attack on a U.S. air base at Jalalabad airport Wednesday resulted in casualties among U.S. and allied Afghan troops. However, the U.S. military reported there were no casualties.
An Afghan government source also reported that more than 110 U.S. troops have gone missing in Afghanistan since October, the majority presumed dead. And a U.S. military source told Stratfor that U.S. troops are suffering frequent casualties including fatalities that are going largely unreported in the press.
Stratfor's military sources in countries around Afghanistan have repeated similar accounts for some time: that there is more to many of the reported incidents, and still more clashes are not being reported at all. Sources in Russian and Indian intelligence separately estimate the U.S. military has suffered between 300 and 400 killed in Afghanistan, with an unknown number wounded. The Pentagon says substantially fewer than 100 have been killed. Although foreign estimates may be inflated, there is no way to independently confirm U.S. claims either.
Sources say there are nightly attacks on U.S. troops, which is confirmed by non-governmental organizations in the country, who add that increased restrictions have been placed on the movements of off-duty U.S. forces. U.S. troops reportedly control only the towns where they have bases, and then only in daylight, while the Karzai government reportedly controls only parts of Kabul.
The militants are moving their campaigns into the cities as well. Kabul residents told Reuters the security situation has deteriorated in recent weeks. The assassination of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir July 6 prompted the U.S. military to take over security for Karzai.
Security forces intercepted a car packed with explosives July 29 and arrested a foreign national who admitted to plotting to use the car bomb to kill Karzai and other officials. On Aug. 15 a small bomb exploded outside the Communications Ministry in Kabul, while five days later, Afghan security forces found a bomb in a bazaar shop half a kilometer from the U.S. Embassy.
Sources in the Afghan government report two worrisome trends. First, resistance to U.S. forces and the Karzai government, previously confined to Kandahar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces, has spread over the summer to nearly all majority Pushtun provinces.
These include, but are not limited to, Oruzgan, Helmand, Kunar and Nangarhar. The decision to fight the United States has reportedly been made by local leaders who have little or nothing to do with either the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Widespread hatred of U.S. forces has reportedly been exacerbated by indiscriminately belligerent behavior of U.S. troops and by incidents such as the July 1 accidental bombing of a wedding party in Oruzgan. NGOs are distancing themselves from U.S. military in anticipation of a backlash, according to the London Independent newspaper.
Second, some Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara field commanders are reportedly seriously considering targeting U.S. forces. Additionally Afghan sources confirm that the Taliban has sealed a partnership with militant group Hezb-i-Islami, and the two groups' forces began operating together this month.
Soviet experience revisited
The result of all this is an accelerating deterioration of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan toward that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. As in the Soviet case, it took a year for the opposition to coalesce, spreading slowly across the country's various factions. The gradual strengthening of the rebel forces was then followed by attacks on the Soviets' Afghan allies, who presented soft targets. This forced the Soviet troops to take charge of security operations themselves, destroying the illusion of partnership with a local regime. The pattern is repeating itself.
The next phase is a protracted war of attrition, with U.S. troops venturing from garrisons to face ambushes on the highways, in villages and in the mountains.
U.S. and Afghan officials both admit now that U.S. troops will be in the country "for years." There are now about 16,000 U.S. and coalition troops in the Afghanistan area of operations. The Soviet deployment reached 118,000 at its peak and was still able to control no more than the towns it occupied.
One striking difference between the U.S. and Soviet experience remains. The Soviets could not attack the Mujahideen bases in Pakistan for fear of sparking a broader war with the United States. Washington does not fear retaliation from a superpower if it strikes inside Pakistan, and it will have to strike there if it is to have any better luck in Afghanistan. But expanding the campaign into Pakistan could bring down the government in Islamabad, leaving the United States at war across both countries at once.