BRUSSELS — A massive effort by U.S. and NATO forces – including offensives in the insurgent heartland and targeted assassinations of rebel leaders – has failed to dent Taliban numerical strength over the past year, according to military and diplomatic officials.
A NATO official said this week that the alliance estimates current number of insurgent fighters at up to 25,000, confirming figures provided earlier by several military officers and diplomats.
That number is the same as a year ago, before the arrival of an additional 40,000 U.S. and allied troops, and before the alliance launched a massive campaign to restore government control in Helmand province and around the city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has kept official figures of enemy strength under wraps throughout the nine-year war. But non-U.S. military assessments have tracked the growth of the Taliban from about 500 armed fighters in 1993 to 25,000 in early 2010.
"These are rough estimates, because they're not just standing around to be counted," said the NATO official who could not be named in line with standing regulations.
The Taliban are pitted against about 140,000 ISAF troops – two-thirds of them Americans – and over 200,000 members of the government's security forces.
This gives the allies a numerical advantage of at least 12:1 – one of the highest such ratios in modern guerrilla wars. At the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. and its allies had an advantage of between 4-5 to 1 over their Communist foes.
President Barack Obama has doubled U.S. troop numbers since taking office two years ago, hoping to inflict major losses on the Taliban before a planned pullout starting this year. The intensity of combat has sharply escalated as a result, with both civilian and military casualties hitting record highs.
Despite the Taliban's ability to make up for battlefield losses, U.S. and NATO commanders now insist they are making real progress throughout the country. They say hundreds of Taliban have been killed, and others forced to abandon the movement's strongholds in southern and eastern provinces.
Meanwhile, the training of a 300,000-strong government security force is said to be going according to the plan adopted at NATO's summit in November. It calls for a gradual hand-over to Afghan troops and initial withdrawals of foreign forces by the middle of this year, concluding in 2014, when security throughout the nation will be transferred entirely to government forces.
"As we look back on 2010, we see that we have made hard-fought progress," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. "Our strategy is sound and we have in place the necessary resources to accomplish it."
Military experts generally agree that international troops have seized the initiative in the war.
Peter Mansoor, a retired army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University, said the unchanged number of insurgents did not reflect the reality on the ground, as the Taliban had in fact sustained heavy blows over the past year.
"We have taken hundreds of their leaders off the battlefields," he said in a telephone interview.
"Next year will be clearly crucial as the Taliban try to regain lost territory around Kandahar and in Helmand, and we'll see if they can make up those losses," he said. "We will also see if we've been able to create the institutions – the government, police and army – there that can sustain themselves."
But other analysts caution that the gains could be reversed because the Taliban have not been defeated, but have simply retreated in the face of superior forces. Employing classic guerrilla tactics they melted away into other areas, spreading the rebellion into new parts of the country.
Jovo Kapicic, a retired Montenegrin general who fought in the first modern guerrilla war – in occupied Yugoslavia during World War II – said it was never a problem for insurgents to make up losses in manpower despite massive losses.
"Guerrillas who enjoy the support of the population can always bounce back," he added.
The Taliban are reported to be enjoying growing support among the population, which is exhausted by nine years of war and increasingly opposed to the foreign troop presence in their country.
"Many people now perceive ISAF as an occupying force," said Anne Jones, a humanitarian activist and author who has lived in Afghanistan. "(They) are no longer part of the solution, they have become the problem."
Afghanistan also remains mired in poverty, with the legitimacy of its graft-ridden, Western-backed government further undermined after two questionable elections in 2010 – conditions that experts in guerrilla warfare say make a perfect breeding ground for anti-government insurgency.
Other specialists note that NATO's announcement regarding withdrawal by 2014 has locked the alliance into an endgame that limits its options. This gives the Taliban a clear goal: survival over the next 18-24 months, when the drawdown will be well under way.
Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said the U.S. and NATO strategy – to weaken the rebels and force them to negotiate with the government – was unlikely to succeed in time.
"The West certainly doesn't have the staying power to defeat the Taliban and reshape the country by 2014, he said. "The Taliban can fall back and basically wait out the NATO forces."