KABUL—The war in Afghanistan reached a wrenching milestone this summer: For the second month in a row, U.S. and coalition troop deaths in the country surpassed casualties in Iraq. This is driven in large part, U.S. officials point out, by simple cause and effect. Marines flowed into southern Afghanistan earlier this year to rout firmly entrenched Taliban fighters, prompting a spike in combat in territory where NATO forces previously didn't have the manpower to send troops. "We're doing something we haven't done in seven years, which is go after the Taliban where they're living," says a U.S. official.
But amid a well-coordinated assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and large-scale bombings last week in the capitals of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. forces are keenly aware that they are facing an increasingly complex enemy here—what U.S. military officials now call a syndicate—composed not only of Taliban fighters but also powerful warlords who were once on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency. "You could almost describe the insurgency as having two branches," says a senior U.S. military official here. "It's the Taliban in the south and a 'rainbow coalition' in the east."
Indeed, along with a smattering of Afghan tribal groups, Pakistani extremists, and drug kingpins, two of the most dangerous players are violent Afghan Islamists named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, according to U.S. officials. In recent weeks, Hekmatyar has called upon Pakistani militants to attack U.S. targets, while the Haqqani network is blamed for three large vehicle bombings, along with the attempted assassination of Karzai in April.
Ironically, these two warlords—currently at the top of America's list of most wanted men in Afghanistan—were once among America's most valued allies. In the 1980s, the CIA funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and ammunition to help them battle the Soviet Army during its occupation of Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, then widely considered by Washington to be a reliable anti-Soviet rebel, was even flown to the United States by the CIA in 1985.
"He was the most radical of the radicals," recalls former Rep. Charlie Wilson, immortalized in the recent film Charlie Wilson's War for his role in directing U.S. military aid to anti-Soviet Afghan warlords. "He didn't hate us as much as he hated the Soviets," he adds, "but he sure didn't like us much." In his early years, the warlord distinguished himself by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. Today, a senior defense official says Hekmatyar is "as vicious as they come." In 2002, the CIA shot a Hellfire missile from an unmanned drone in an effort to kill him.
U.S. officials had an even higher opinion of Haqqani, who was considered the most effective rebel warlord. "I adored Haqqani. When I was in Afghanistan, Haqqani was the guy who made sure I would get out," says Wilson. "He was a marvelous leader and very beloved in his territory."
Haqqani was also one of the leading advocates of the so-called Arab Afghans, deftly organizing Arab volunteer fighters who came to wage jihad against the Soviet Union and helping to protect future al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Today, U.S. military officials are not certain that Haqqani is alive, though he was featured in an undated video that recently surfaced. "Either way, the Haqqani we're fighting now is the son"—34-year-old Sirajuddin Haqqani—says the senior U.S. military official. "He gets a lot of benefit from his father's prestige."
Today, the Haqqani network is driving the recent rise in violence in eastern Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials. Haqqani "is definitely the strongest" enemy in the border provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost, known among military officials as p2k. The senior U.S. military official notes that Haqqani is increasingly moving to more-asymmetric means of attack to avoid straight-on shootouts with better-armed U.S. forces, a general tactical guidance that came from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar last year. To that end, U.S. military officials estimate that they have seen a 10 percent rise in use of roadside bombs, which now account for one third of the attacks against coalition forces in the country.
At the highest levels, Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network cooperate and find sanctuary in Pakistan, where the country's political turmoil and suspension of operations in the lawless tribal areas have facilitated increased attacks in Afghanistan. Of the two warlords, Hekmatyar, by U.S. military estimates, "has a wider geographic coverage" and greater political credibility. A recent press release issued by Hekmatyar's spokesman thanked the Pakistani "mujahideen" for their support in the Afghan war against American and other "occupation forces." It noted, however, that the efforts allow the international community to blame Pakistan for meddling in Afghan affairs and requested that fighters restrict their activities for now to "U.S. installations and interests within Pakistan."
A former politician, Hekmatyar founded the Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (known as hig), an offshoot of which remains a popular party in the Afghan parliament. "There's blue—or 'good'—hig and red—or 'bad'—hig," says the senior U.S. military official. "About half of his group sides with the government; the more recalcitrant are still joining the insurgency."
But though the Hekmatyar and Haqqani networks have loose alliances and similar goals, each has its own turf. "They are swimming in the same stream, but they are not unified. There is no Ho Chi Minh," says the U.S. military official. "They have the same broad generic approaches, and it works. The bottom line is that if your only mission is to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, you don't have to be coordinated—and what they're doing is plenty good enough to stir up problems in this country."
In the course of conducting these operations, insurgents have benefited greatly from the shortage of U.S. and allied troops here, say U.S. officials. Earlier this month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he is "deeply troubled" by the increasing violence in Afghanistan but emphasized that troop levels in Iraq precluded a further increase in forces. "We need more troops there," he said in Washington. "But I don't have the troops I can reach for."
There are signs, however, that the Pentagon's priorities are shifting as conditions improve in Iraq. The Defense Department last week moved an aircraft carrier from Iraq war duty in the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, shortening the distance that strike planes must fly to provide air support in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon recently announced that it is extending by one month the seven-month deployment of 2,200 of the 3,200 marines sent to Afghanistan in March.
Still, U.S. officials are in widespread agreement that there aren't enough forces in the country. There are currently 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan backed by some 25,000 allied troops under NATO command, in total roughly 37 percent of force levels in Iraq. "There should be another 20,000 marines" in Afghanistan, says the U.S. official. "We're advancing, but we're doing it with troop levels that are unacceptably low." Mullen, too, has raised questions about the consequences of what he calls an "economy of force" campaign. "What we're going through right now is an ability to, in almost every single case, win from the combat standpoint," said Mullen. He added, however, that "we don't have enough troops there to hold. And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan." l
With Kevin Whitelaw in Washington and Aamir Latif in Pakistan