Resurgent Taliban is focus of Gates visit to Afghanistan
KABUL: Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan on Tuesday before planned meetings with NATO and U.S. military leaders and President Hamid Karzai to discuss the resurgent Taliban insurgency.
It was Gates's first trip to Afghanistan since he took over for Donald Rumsfeld last month. Gates has said several times recently that he is worried that U.S. gains in stabilizing Afghanistan could be in jeopardy as the radical Taliban movement makes a comeback in some parts of the country, particularly the south.
At NATO headquarters in Belgium on Monday, Gates said one subject he and military leaders had discussed "was the increased level of violence last year and some indication that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007."
Several American military officials said Tuesday that Taliban fighters seeking to regain power in Afghanistan were taking advantage of a recent peace deal with Pakistan to dramatically increase attacks on U.S. and allied forces in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan.
Lieutenant General Ken Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview that Taliban attacks surged by 200 percent in December, and a U.S. military intelligence officer said that since the peace deal went into effect Sept. 5, the number of attacks in the border area had grown by 300 percent.
Eikenberry did not explicitly criticize Pakistan's deal with tribal leaders in the border area, and he said he was confident that U.S. and NATO forces would dominate on the decisive battlefields. But he predicted, "It's going to be a violent spring."
Colonel Thomas Collins, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the Pakistan peace deal had backfired.
"The enemy is taking advantage of that agreement to launch attacks into Afghanistan," he said.
Eikenberry spoke to a group of U.S. reporters traveling with Gates, who was receiving closed-door briefings from military officials on the resurgence of the Taliban in recent months.
A U.S. military intelligence officer disclosed for the first time full-year statistics on insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. There were 139 suicide attacks in 2006, up from 27 in 2005, and the number of attacks with roadside bombs more than doubled, from 783 in 2005 to 1,677 last year. The number of what the military calls "direct attacks," meaning attacks by insurgents using small arms, grenades and other weapons, surged from 1,558 in 2005 to 4,542 last year.
The officer noted that some of the increase could be explained by the fact that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces conducted more offensive operations in more areas last year, but the officer said the insurgents' attacks were more sophisticated and in some cases more coordinated.