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."
Stephen Biddle, an analyst on counterinsurgency who contributed to Gen. McChrystal's new strategy report to the White House, said the Taliban is taxing the drug trade in Helmand, as well as economic activity, and using the money to pay fighters.
"They also can recruit coercively," said Mr. Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Sometimes it's explicit and sometimes it's implicit. In some situations, the Taliban will go to a family and say, 'We want one person: Give us one of your sons, or else.'
"More commonly, when the population in the area perceives the Taliban as ascendant, because they come to control the district or the village or the community in which they hadn't before, the population is trying to hedge their bets over who is going to come out ahead in the end. And one of the ways to hedge your bets, and to make sure your family is protected, is by producing recruits for them."
Then there is the sanctuary issue. The Taliban and al Qaeda use a network of mosques in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas to coax new recruits, train them and ship them across the border, the military official said.
The U.S. monitors the mosques but does not bomb them. Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities generally take a hands-off approach for fear of riling the locals.
"We know that's a sanctuary," Mr. Donnelly said. "And likewise, the Pakistanis are not able, or unwilling, to do anything about that."
President Obama in December ordered 30,000 additional U.S. forces into Afghanistan, bringing the total commitment to about 100,000 later this year. They are backed by about 50,000 NATO troops and an Afghan national army of 100,000.
The quarter-million allied troops leave the Taliban greatly outnumbered. The Taliban tries to make up the difference by relying on buried improvised explosive devices, ambushes and basing fighters in villages not controlled by the government.
"Political control of a population, if it's by insurgents, leads to recruitment," Mr. Biddle said. "If it's by the government, it prevents recruitment."