As U.S. and NATO forces have evicted insurgents from a broad swath of southern Afghanistan, senior Taliban commanders have shifted toward a new battlefield strategy, one less focused on reclaiming lost territory and more on winning the next phase of the 11-year-old war.
U.S. military and intelligence officials believe that Taliban commanders, driven by a combination of desperation and savvy, have started assigning more of their suicide fighters to conduct audacious attacks against prominent targets across the country, including the U.S. Embassy and well-fortified NATO bases.
Insurgent leaders, they say, have redoubled a campaign to assassinate key Afghan government and security officials who are likely to play leadership roles in the country once foreign troops depart. And by happenstance or meticulous planning – U.S. military officials are not sure which – the Taliban has managed to kill numerous Western troops by joining the ranks of the Afghan army.
The Taliban are fighting a political war while the United States and its allies are still fighting a tactical military war, said Joshua Foust, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who has worked in Afghanistan. We remain focused on terrain. They are focused on attacking the transition process and seizing the narrative of victory.
The impact of the strategic shift, which has occurred gradually over the past year, has been profound. The high-profile assaults and assassinations have prompted new doubts among Afghans about the ability of their government and security forces to keep the insurgents at bay once NATOs combat mission ends in 2014. The infiltration of the security forces led the top allied operational commander in Kabul on Monday to order extraordinary new restrictions on joint patrols and other missions, a move that strikes at the heart of the U.S. and NATO strategy to operate in closer partnership with Afghan soldiers.
U.S. officials said the new rules, which require high-level approval for partnered operations, also resulted from concern about possible attacks on American and NATO forces by Afghan troops enraged by reports of a controversial anti-Islam video produced in the United States.
Protecting the force for the moment protects the mission and the campaign later, said a senior U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal military decision-making.
The official said the pause in joint operations also will enable allied forces to implement new protection measures intended to defend against insider attacks resulting from Taliban infiltration, which account for about a quarter of all green on blue killings. Fifty-one foreign troops have been killed in insider attacks this year.
U.S. commanders have urged the Afghan Ministry of Defense to take more aggressive actions to vet its troops for possible links to the Taliban. Until recently, the ministry resisted placing officers from the countrys intelligence service in army battalions to ferret out insurgents in the ranks.
Regardless of how long the plans may have been in the works, U.S. officials think that Taliban leaders quickly sought to seize an opportunity to undermine confidence in the NATO mission. The infiltration was relatively easy, the officials said, because the Defense Ministry did little vetting, in part because of pressure from the American military to grow the Afghan army as quickly as possible.
The Taliban made a decision at a senior level to sneak into the security forces, said Alex Strick van Linschoten, an Afghanistan-based researcher. There wouldnt be so many of them if this wasnt officially sanctioned policy.