BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan
Taliban militants now have a fixed presence in nearly three-quarters of Afghanistan, a sharp increase from last year, according to an international policy think tank.
The report by the International Council on Security and Development calls for a revamped NATO security strategy to stem an insurgency it says has made alarming inroads in much of the southern, western and northeastern provinces of the country, as well as in the capital, Kabul.
Overall, Taliban presence increased to 72 percent, an 18 percent jump compared with 2007, the report said. The think tank report added that militants now have "de facto control" of much of the south.
NATO rejected the report´s credibility, saying the assertion was "simply not true." While acknowledging heavy insurgent activity in the south and east, NATO said that levels of violence have increased in proportion with more aggressive military operations and the greater number of coalition troops, which has climbed from 37,000 to 52,000.
Those figures will climb soon, with as many as 20,000 additional U.S. troops set to be deployed over the next 12 to 18 months.
An Army brigade expected to arrive next month will largely be based on the southern side of the capital, the New York Times reported over the weekend, reflecting serious concerns about Kabul's vulnerability.
The Taliban's fugitive leader, Mullah Omar, in a message posted on a Web site Sunday, said the planned increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan will give his fighters incentive to kill and maim more Americans than ever, the Associated Press reported.
"The current armed clashes, which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundreds of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up to thousand casualties of dead and injured," said Mullah Omar, who is believed to be sheltered by fiercely conservative tribesman on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The think tank report sought to highlight Taliban gains in and around Kabul, where a wave of shootings, suicide attacks, kidnappings and other criminal activities have occurred in recent months. A map of the city accompanying the report showed the area occupied by the U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters and the Afghan presidential palace as one of "high Taliban/criminal activity."
Three of the four main highways into the capital are also under threat from the Taliban, the report said, part of a gathering effort to choke Kabul off from the rest of the country.
"Taliban are closing a noose around Kabul, and there is a real danger that the Taliban will simply overrun Afghanistan under the noses of NATO," said Paul Burton, the director of policy for the research organization.
The report was released a day after more than 160 U.S. and NATO vehicles were torched by militants outside Peshawar, Pakistan, the biggest attack to date on a vital military supply line.
The study relied on a combination of reported attacks and local perceptions of Taliban strength in its determinations. One or more insurgent attacks per week in a given province qualified the area as a "permanent Taliban presence."
NATO said this gauge was highly misleading, noting that most instances were hit-and-run attacks rather than direct confrontations, which have declined.
Formerly know as the Senlis Council, the think tank has earned a reputation for harsh criticism of NATO security and counternarcotics policies.
Following the same methodology as the one used in the report, NATO estimated that 74 percent of insurgent-related incidents are taking place in only 10 percent of the districts, composing only 6 percent of the population.
By NATO´s count, insurgent activity in Kabul is actually down 48 percent this year.
NATO has conceded, however, that the Taliban has impaired freedom of movement "to reasonable effect" on key inbound roads.