In Afghanistan, U.S. Forces Face Growing Challenges—And a Rising Death Toll

The resurgent Taliban is drawing more U.S. forces into the battle.

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For now, Pakistan has agreed to a handful of border outposts staffed with Afghan, Pakistani, and NATO troops. But it does not bode well, McCaffrey notes, that the manual written for the border stations includes 40-plus pages of instructions on what troops are not allowed to do there.

Making things more complicated are ties between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban, occasionally abetted by the government, which pays tribes and insurgent networks to attack each other with the goal of preventing any one group from getting too strong. "The Pakistanis, as the Brits did before them, try to get the tribes to work against each other," says the senior military official in Afghanistan. In one striking change, the Bush administration has become more willing to publicly challenge Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, for alleged cooperation with tribes and insurgents fighting U.S. forces.

Corruption and poverty.  While insurgents in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan will continue to be a grave threat to progress in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say that equally destructive and less publicized is the corruption that permeates the Afghan government, which has done little to alleviate the poverty throughout the country. This in turn has fed the explosion of opium poppy crops. They are easy to grow and, best of all, don't require refrigeration, which is key in a country without electricity in most rural areas.

U.S. military officials seem increasingly resigned to the fact that fighting is not the forte of most of the 37 nations allied with them in Afghanistan. But more development assistance from NATO partners could further free up U.S. troops to fight, as well as train more Afghan police to enable them to provide security in areas that NATO forces clear but do not have the numbers to hold. "We need a lot of help that's not there now," says the senior U.S. military official in Kabul. "That's the most frustrating thing. We need a big pile of State Department folks and folks from other nations—any others that can do something right." In order to work, such experts need some measure of security and local goodwill. But that is eroding throughout the country. Stepped-up fighting and too few troops have forced NATO to rely more heavily on air power, sometimes with the devastating consequence of civilian casualties that fuel antigovernment, anti-American anger. "We have used it as a crutch," says the senior U.S. military official in Kabul, who adds that NATO partners need more training on how to call in airstrikes. "There are a lot of bombs being dropped in support of the coalition. Yeah, we dropped it, but you guys asked for it, and you didn't know what you were asking for," the official adds. General McKiernan has issued guidelines to all troops "telling them to be smarter, be more careful, think their way through it" with the goal of decreasing civilian casualties.

In the meantime, U.S. forces are battling it out against an increasingly sophisticated Taliban, which plans to step up attacks on small, often isolated NATO units, according to U.S. intelligence. In August, for instance, 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in an ambush just 40 miles east of Kabul. Taliban leaders hope to raise domestic political pressure on NATO partner countries to pull out. "The Taliban isn't strong enough to take over the country," the senior military official in Afghanistan says. "But they don't have to be. They are strong enough to end its progress—and they are doing that relatively successfully."