- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

The Taliban has reaped a recruiting bonanza the past two years, capitalizing on NATO’s stagnant posture in southern Afghanistan by increasing fighter ranks by 35 percent, U.S. officials say.

The increase is one reason NATO forces, in an ongoing offensive, are meeting strong resistance as they fight town by town to gain control of the Taliban stronghold in the city of Kandahar and in Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

It also shows the enemy’s resilience in an eight-year insurgency. In the face of air strikes and NATO raids that kill scores of Taliban at a time, the former rulers of Afghanistan still have been able to pad their ranks.

A military intelligence source, providing numbers confirmed by a senior U.S. official, told The Washington Times that Taliban strength now stands at 27,000 fighters in the Afghan-Pakistan theater, 7,000 more than in 2008.

“The Taliban have expanded their ranks by recruiting militants in their traditional southern strongholds, and by extending their reach to other parts of Afghanistan,” said the official, who asked not to be named because it was an intelligence matter. “The numbers of Taliban aren’t as high in those other areas, but the group’s footprint has clearly grown. There has been a steep increase.”

The military source also said about 600 al Qaeda operatives are moving between the two countries.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said Sunday that the offensive in the region is aimed at taking away Taliban sanctuaries and has encountered Taliban resistance that he described as “formidable” but “a bit disjointed.”

“We are going after them across the spectrum,” Gen. Petraeus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We have more of our special operations forces going in on the ground and you’ve seen the results. You’ve heard some of the initial results of that with more Afghan shadow governors, the Taliban shadow governors being captured, more of the high-value targets being taken down.”

But Gen. Petraeus also characterized the offensive as just the beginning of a lengthy and multi-pronged campaign against the Taliban.

“This is just the initial operation of what will be a 12- to 18-month campaign as Gen. McChrystal and his team mapped it out,” Gen. Petraeus said. “We spent the last year getting the inputs right in Afghanistan, getting the structure and organizations necessary for a comprehensive civil military campaign, putting the best leaders we can find in charge of those.”

With control of scores of villages, Taliban commanders have been free to round up recruits, using Islamic ideology along with money, fear or a combination of both.

“I think that reflects the fact our presence in Helmand and Kandahar has been pretty small,” said Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who helped devise the Iraq troop surge in 2007. “They’ve been working hard since 2003, 2004, 2005 to rebuild, and they’ve been able to move into places and recruit people for a whole host of reasons — not least among them there has been no Afghan government presence or significant opposition to them.”

Said the military source, who recently served in Afghanistan: “They offer money and/or food. Their target audience is generally illiterate. And they take care of the families of their martyrs. It’s also fairly valid when they say, ‘We’ll still be here after the infidels have gone.’”

Part of the new strategy of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the overall Afghan commander, is to weed out uncommitted Taliban and retrain them as government forces.

“There are notorious 10-dollar-a-day Taliban who are fence sitters who are leaning more Taliban than not,” Mr. Donnelly said. “But it also may save your own life or the lives of your family or the lives of your village clan. There is a whole spectrum. Signing up for the Taliban is not like an enlistment contract in the U.S. Army.”

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