FORT BRAGG, N.C. — U.S. Special Forces soldiers hunting Taliban and foreign fighters in southern Afghanistan say they are encountering a fiercer and more organized adversary than last year, and one that is far from being near collapse as predicted by an American general in April.
The commander and officers of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group — an elite counterinsurgency unit known as the Desert Eagles — provided the assessment in a recent video-teleconference briefing here with USA TODAY from battalion headquarters in Kandahar.
The report calls into question plans to replace most, if not all, U.S. forces in the volatile south next year with NATO troops that will not conduct the same aggressive counterinsurgency operations.
The troubling unrest in a country that held successful elections and appeared to have quelled the insurgency comes amid heightened concern in Washington over the conflict in Iraq, which is overshadowing Afghanistan.
In April, Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, then senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, predicted the insurgency would largely collapse within about a year. But this year has been the bloodiest since the 2001 invasion for the 18,000 U.S. forces. In 2005, 87 U.S. troops have died, nearly half the 186 killed since the war began. In July, 19 Americans died when insurgents downed a U.S. helicopter searching for four Navy SEALs in eastern Afghanistan. Three SEALs were killed.
Afghan officials say much fighting remains to be done. "Our concern is that whoever takes over those areas will have to engage in counterinsurgency," says Ashraf Haidari, an Afghan Embassy spokesman in Washington. Insurgent violence "has increased since last year, and we expect more terrorist attacks."
Wednesday, Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak told the Associated Press that terrorist attacks now resemble the violence in Iraq. This week, three suicide bombings in Kabul, the capital, killed 10 people, including a U.S. soldier and a German peacekeeper.
Lt. Col. Donald Bolduc, commander of the Desert Eagles, said in the October briefing that guerrilla fighting has gained strength since last year. The unit is on its fourth tour. "The guys would tell you that this is a different enemy than they saw before," he said.
American and Afghan forces have prevailed in battle, but Bolduc warned: "If we leave here before we have trained an effective Afghan national security force that's where the insurgency will probably have a pretty successful go at turning the tide."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai says U.S. forces in the south will be "significantly reduced" next year. The alliance's rules of engagement "mean active and robust defense. But it doesn't mean offensive, long-term operations," he says.
Retired U.S. general Barry McCaffrey, who toured Afghanistan in August, is concerned. "NATO forces are in most cases going to be thin gruel compared to the U.S. (forces) they will replace," he says.