- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban remains “intact,” but the number of al Qaeda fighters in the country remains very low, according to the Pentagon’s semi-annual report to Congress on the Afghanistan War.

In addition, Taliban insurgents have made gains in rural areas vacated by NATO troops, and Afghan troop casualties have increased by 79 percent in the past six months while coalition casualties have decreased, states the report, which was released earlier this month.

According to the report, Afghan troops will need “substantial” mentoring and aid after 2014 in order to defeat the Taliban, despite having made significant improvements. Afghan troops now conduct 95 percent of all conventional operations and 98 percent of all special operations, but they still need help with medical support, clearing routes of roadside bombs, restocking remote bases and conducting air attacks.

The report comes as Afghan elders consider a security agreement that would allow U.S. forces to stay in the country after 2014, when all international combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan. Several thousand troops are expected to remain for 10 years to train and assist Afghan forces, as well as hunt al Qaeda terrorists.

Failure to secure a similar agreement with Iraq forced U.S. troops to leave in 2011. Since then, violence in Iraq has returned to 2008 levels and al Qaeda has re-established itself.

NATO officials fear a similar outcome in Afghanistan, where they admit their ability to gather intelligence has been hindered by the troop drawdown, particularly in the west and north.

“We are losing ‘touch points’ We are collapsing back,” a senior coalition official told The Washington Times on background. “There are times where I’ve got to tell a commander, ‘Sir, this is my best estimate of the situation based on the intelligence that I have.’”

Afghan troops will need significant support after 2014 to fill that intelligence gap, the official said, adding that Afghan troops excel at gathering human intelligence but have rudimentary skills in other areas, leading to high casualties.

“What we’re working on is getting to a point where they conduct what we call ‘intelligence-driven’ operations, where they develop an understanding of the enemy, where the enemy is, what strength he’s at, what he’s capable of doing, and then they develop a plan that overwhelms the enemy,” the official said in a phone interview from Kabul.

“So it’s not two forces stumbling into one another, but it is one that at the first shot, the [Afghan forces] have an overwhelming advantage over the enemy When that happens, we think that’ll play a part in their casualties going down.”

Getting Afghan forces to share intelligence with one another is a challenge, the official said.

“That’s not always intuitive in this culture — where knowledge can be power, where having information could provide influence,” the official said. “It’s getting over some of those social things to create an environment where they can share intelligence rapidly to commanders at higher and lower levels so people can make decisions.”

Coalition trainers are focusing on helping Afghans develop capabilities in surveillance and signals intelligence — the ability to pick up communications between insurgents.

NATO is working to hand over some of its surveillance balloons, known as aerostats, to Afghan forces and is looking into developing drone capabilities.

“That’s going to take some time,” the official said. “It’s not something that’s just going to happen overnight.”