By Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann
CNN's Barbara Starr reported last week that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is expected to ask the Obama administration for additional troops and equipment for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as more military resources to deal with roadside bombs and explosives.
This impending request appears to conflict with a report earlier in July by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward who wrote that on a trip to Afghanistan, James L. Jones, national security adviser, personally told U.S. military commanders in the country that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels flat for now.
But given the relatively small size of the Afghan army and police -- numbering some 170,000 men -- and with the total number of U.S./NATO troops numbering around 100,000, McChrystal's impending request makes a great deal of military sense. While the combined forces total 270,000, classic counterinsurgency doctrine indicates that Afghanistan needs as many as 600,000 soldiers and cops to protect its population of some 30 million.
An additional reason why more boots on the ground makes military sense is the large geographic scope of the Taliban insurgency. Estimates of the number of full-time fighters generally do not go above 20,000 men. But according to our analysis of an unpublished threat assessment map provided by the Afghan National Security Forces to the United Nations in April, 40 percent of Afghanistan was either under direct Taliban control or a high-risk area for insurgent attacks.
These high-risk and Taliban-controlled areas are located primarily in the troubled south and east of the country, along the 1,600-mile border with Pakistan.
We obtained a copy of the map which the U.N., for security reasons, does not make available to the general public. It provides a district-by-district assessment of insurgent presence across Afghanistan on a range that goes from "low risk" to "enemy controlled."
The good news for U.S., NATO and Afghan forces is that, according to the map, only around 7 percent of the country was fully Taliban-controlled in April.
The bad news is that an additional third of Afghanistan's territory was considered "high risk." Roughly 11 percent of the country was termed "medium risk," while 46 percent was deemed "low risk."
Our analysis of the threat assessment map relied on data about the size of each of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts provided by USAID in Afghanistan and the Afghanistan Information Management Services, a U.N. project in Kabul.
Helmand province, the site of a major coalition offensive since early July involving thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of Afghans, had the highest percentage of territory controlled by the Taliban: Nearly 60 percent of the province in April was fully enemy-controlled, and the remainder was classified as "high risk."
The provinces of Paktika, Khost, Paktiya and Kunar -- all of which lie on the Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani Taliban is headquartered -- were also classified as high risk.
Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan provinces, all hotbeds of Taliban insurgency in the south, were deemed entirely high risk or enemy controlled.
As of April, 13 of the some 380 districts in Afghanistan
were classified as fully enemy controlled, while another 127 were classified at
high risk of insurgent attacks. The remainder of the districts were classified
either medium- or low-risk zones.
The map is used to highlight where the U.N. is able to deliver its aid projects, according to Aleem Siddique, a United Nations spokesman.
In an e-mail, Siddique said the map "is NOT publicly available as we have had incidents in the past where journalists and others have gotten hold of the map and used it as a travel guide which have resulted in security incidents." For that reason we are not publishing the detailed map.
The map, dated April 23, 2009, reflects the state of the insurgency before the summer fighting season kicked into high gear. There are currently about 57,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, with up to 68,000 authorized by President Obama. July has been the deadliest month of the Afghan war for both American and British military personnel, with 41 and 22 killed respectively.
NATO and U.S. forces and the Afghan army are likely to encounter even heavier fighting in the high-risk and enemy-controlled areas of Afghanistan as election day for the Afghan presidency, August 20, approaches.
Last week Taliban militants released a statement in southern Afghanistan, calling on all Afghans to boycott the upcoming election and warning that they planned to block roads leading to polling stations.
For the Taliban and for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan the next several months are critical to the outcome of the Afghan war. Forty-two percent of Americans in a March USA Today/Gallup poll said the Afghan war was a "mistake," up from only 6 percent in 2002. Rising public skepticism about the war in Afghanistan is also prevalent in many of the other NATO countries that have soldiers deployed there.
The Taliban's strategy is to survive the present offensives against them in southern Afghanistan in the hope that the political will to engage in Afghanistan will evaporate over time in the United States and other NATO countries.
That may already be happening. In May, 51 House Democrats voted against continued funding for the Afghan and Iraq wars. As the election season for midterm elections to the U.S. House of Representatives begins in earnest in early 2010, House Republicans will surely make Afghanistan an issue if there isn't tangible progress being made there.
One obvious benchmark of progress will be whether by the end of this summer's fighting season the Taliban is considerably rolled back from the 40 percent of the country it either controlled or had the ability to attack frequently this past spring.
This piece was first published on CNN.com.
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