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by Anand Gopal

NATO Winning Afghanistan Battles, Losing the War

(IPS) KABUL -- Violence levels have increased in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2008, compared to the first part of 2007, a series of newly-released studies indicate.

On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped an assassination bid while attending a military parade in Kabul. A member of parliament and a 10-year-old child were among the dead. A spokesman for the Taliban said the fighters wanted to show they can infiltrate such high security events.

In the past week, three reports have independently warned of a worsening security situation this year.

A Kabul-based security specialist released a study suggesting that insurgent attacks jumped by almost 40 percent in the first months of 2008 compared to the analogous period last year; a non-governmental organization (NGO) reported that insurgent attacks against NGOs doubled compared to early 2007; and, a European-based think thank announced that an eventual defeat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a realistic possibility.

There were 991 "security incidents" -- acts of violence that originated from the Taliban or anti-government elements, in the first 13 weeks of 2008, according to Sami Kovanen, a security specialist with the security firm Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan. The increasing violence -- there were 717 such attacks during the first 13 weeks of 2007 -- signals the growing operational capabilities of the Taliban, Kovanen says.

"In 2006, the Taliban tried large, concerted actions with up to 100 fighters involved in a single attack," he says. "But now they operate in small groups, using hit-and-run methods and other classic guerrilla tactics."

The tactical change has resulted in more frequent and sometime more effective attacks, Kovanen says. Often the attacks target police checkpoints and other elements of the Afghan security forces, but in recent weeks many coalition soldiers have come under fire -- 47 coalition soldiers have died this year, most during the last month.

Kovanen's data suggest that violence has risen most sharply in areas previously known for a relative amount of security -- the central and western regions. The central area around Kabul, including Wardak, Logar and Parwan provinces, has seen a 70 percent jump in insurgent attacks, and violence in the western area around Herat has jumped by 40 percent.

Insurgent attacks against NGOs have also jumped this year, according to a new study by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO). The organization reports 29 attacks against aid agencies this year, of which 16 originated from the Taliban. The same period last year saw only eight such attacks.

"It is our assessment that the increase in attacks on NGOs is being driven by the general escalation of the conflict, second by ongoing integration of criminal organizations into the (insurgent) structure and thirdly by the partial erosion of the respect of NGO neutrality that has been evident until now," the report says.

Critics say that the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), combinations of aid agencies and militaries that are aimed at reconstruction, only serve to conflate the aid agencies with NATO forces in the eyes of the local population. "The PRTs and NGOs shouldn't go together," Anton Van Engelen, an independent consultant, says. "Most NGOs are realising they don't want anything to do with them."

ISAF officials have long maintained that the insurgents will increasingly turn to suicide attacks because of their inability to defeat coalition forces in conventional battles. "I would expect that (insurgents) will look for ... ways to come back and it'll be irregular, asymmetric. It will be what is very sensational: that's the bombings," NATO General John Craddock said earlier this year, referring to suicide bombings.

However, the ANSO report claims that suicide attacks have actually gone down in recent months. "The data demonstrates," the report says, "a move away from suicide strikes which are at their lowest level in 15 months."

Insurgents are moving away from suicide attacks, according to Kovanen, because the tactic is not always effective. "The Taliban can't fight ISAF in a conventional nature," Kovanen says, "but still they are getting more and more smart" about their tactics. The guerrillas are focusing on attacking police outposts and planting increasingly effective roadside bombs. Moreover, Kovanen suggests that the Taliban is splitting its resources -- many suicide fighters are focusing their efforts in Pakistan, where the rate of suicide attacks has skyrocketed.

The increasing violence points to a deeper trend, say analysts from the European Council of Foreign Relations, a Brussels-based think tank. "A swift and successful end to the conflict," according to the agency's latest report, "is out of reach; even optimistic scenarios foresee an international presence in Afghanistan for years to come."

Without a concerted effort to distribute aid and attempts to bring insurgents into the political process, NATO may face eventual defeat, the report warns. The report's author, Daniel Korski, recently fingered the surrounding powers for blame as well. "Any stability achieved in Afghanistan will remain unacceptably fragile as long as neighbors such as Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran treat the country as a pawn in their own regional power play," he told reporters recently.

Violence has increased every year since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and many experts say that the insurgency can continue unabated into the indefinite future. Barring a negotiated settlement, "they can keep going like this forever," Kovanen says, "and eventually they can reach their goal by wearing out the international forces."

The continued violence is eroding the optimism that was widespread a few years ago. "The situation is very bad and it's getting worse," Kabul resident Yousef Khan Hotak says. "Everyday there are bombings, kidnappings and shootings around the country. I am beginning to lose hope."

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Albion Monitor   April 28, 2008   (

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