January 31, 2009 – Violence in Afghanistan soared by nearly a third last year, the highest rise since coalition operations in the troubled country began more than seven years ago.
According to new Nato statistics obtained by the Observer, violence rose by 31%, taking levels of fighting to a new peak of intensity. In 2007 there were around 5,000 “violent incidents” in the 20 worst-affected districts of the country. Last year the total rose to around 7,000.
Nato officials said the sharp rise was “in large part” due to more international troops pushing into areas that were previously without any military presence – such as the major deployment of US marines to the southern province of Helmand where UK forces are based – provoking more combat.
But the officials admitted that Taliban insurgent activity, particularly the targeting of the softer targets of Afghan government officials, soldiers or loyal tribal elders was also a factor. Incidents involving remote-controlled bombs were up 33% in 2008 and constituted the single largest cause of casualties among coalition troops, among whom the number of deaths rose by 11%.
“We have seen a tactical shift with the insurgents using [remote controlled] roadside bombs and similar tactics against western troops while attacking local forces, such as policemen or elders, more conventionally,” one Nato official said. “However it is important to stress that the violence remains geographically limited.”
The new figures underline the enormous challenge facing the Kabul government and its international allies as the Taliban insurgency continues to consolidate its hold over large parts of the east and south of the country. Last week critical presidential elections, scheduled for May, were postponed to August due to the threat of violence.
The new Nato statistics reveal that in several areas that had been relatively calm the number of incidents doubled or even trebled. Though the total of attacks, ambushes and other military contacts in provinces such as Wardak or Logar remained relatively low, it is recognised that Taliban power and influence has grown.
Typically the insurgents establish a “parallel administration” in target areas, intimidating local officials, dispensing rough justice, killing opponents and even sometimes collecting taxes before starting military operations against Afghan government and coalition forces.
Nato spokesmen stress that the most intense violence has remained largely within the same 10% area of Afghanistan as in previous years and still only effects an estimated 6% of the population.
However Antonio Giustozzi, author and expert on the Taliban at the London School of Economics said the statistics ignored increasingly widespread reports of Taliban propaganda, intimidation and the presence of small groups of armed men. Equally there was often no violence because “there was no one for the Taliban to fight against”.
“It does not mean the Taliban are not active; it means that the district is under their complete control,” he told the Observer.
The Nato statistics do however show a sharp drop in violent incidents in Kabul itself and the province around the capital, though officials admit that crime in the capital has risen.
“The attacks that we have had in Kabul have been very spectacular but that has disguised an overall drop in the level of violence,” said one Nato official. Last year saw high-profile strikes on the city’s only luxury hotel, a military parade and the Indian embassy. Nato spokesmen cite polls late last year showing that 24% of Afghans felt security was improving. Only 19% believed it was getting worse.
The US president, Barack Obama, has pledged to refocus efforts on Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan rather than Iraq and to “surge” between 20,000 and 30,000 extra soldiers into the battle against the Taliban over the next 12 to 18 months. International forces have already expanded from 5,500 in 2003 to a current total of around 55,000, including 36,000 Americans.
The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has made it clear that the new administration has abandoned ambitious plans to build “a central Asia Valhalla” in favour of more a pragmatic, security-based agenda. Such views are increasingly held by soldiers, defence officials and diplomats in European capitals and London. “We have to ask what our bottom line in Afghanistan is. And that is that it does not pose a security threat to us. Beyond that everything is a bonus,” said one western diplomat interviewed in Pakistan last month.
The new American commitment of resources is unlikely to be matched by European Nato partners. The British government has so far only said it will dispatch a further 300 soldiers, requested by commanders last year, and it is unlikely that the French, German or Dutch will send more than token forces to a war that is extremely unpopular at home.