At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, head of the NATO Joint Command and Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, pointed to valuable progress made this year, but said "the Taliban's not on the ropes yet."
Rodriguez said he believes that during the remaining months of winter, typically a slow period for attacks, the Taliban would alter its strategy for the warmer months to focus more intently on carrying out assassinations of local officials who have cooperated with allied forces.
"They're going to come back with a different type of strategy... which I believe is going to be focused on the leadership much more than it ever has, the political leadership... and the government leaders,” Rodriguez said. "They will not be as direct in their confrontations as they were last year, I believe."
Among the tactics he expects they'll employ are the use of assassination squads and more improvised explosives devices (IEDS), such as roadside bombs, already the deadliest weapon at the Taliban's disposal.
According to Pentagon figures, IED attacks jumped from roughly 9,000 in 2009 to nearly 14,500 in 2010 as the U.S. surge of 30,000 troops fanned out across Afghanistan to engage the Taliban. The death toll rose as well. The makeshift landmines killed 268 American troops in 2010, 100 more than the previous year and the number of service members wounded by the devices was up 178 percent to 3,366.
Rodriguez says the commanders on the ground are not to the point yet of recommending how many of the approximately 100,000 U.S troops will be asked to leave in July, when President Obama has said the withdrawal of U.S. forces will begin.
To get to the point of withdrawal, Rodriguez said, Afghan security forces need to be properly trained. And while he said the Afghan Army is much improved over the last year, the police are still in bad shape. In addition to a shortage of trainers, the police force suffers from high rates of illiteracy, corruption, drug abuse and desertion.
During a NATO summit in Lisbon late last year, leaders discussed a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces to 378,000 men by October 2011, 70,000 more than originally sought. Commanders in the field and defense officials are in disagreement about the plan, some arguing that by building the force too quickly will mean lowering the already poor standards for recruitment, sending the police and Army into a downward spiral. Rodriguez said the plan is still being discussed.
As for Pakistan, Rodriguez echoed the repeated call for that nation’s military to do more to suppress Islamist radicals and Taliban fighters hiding in its northwestern tribal regions. But this time he had a new message for the Pakistanis: we can do it with or without you.
"We're going to encourage them to do more, because that makes it easier on what we're doing. But I think it's still doable without them," Rodriguez said. If Pakistan's military decided not to go into the lawless Waziristan region, Rodriguez said, "that's not a mission-stopper."