Groups: Taliban's grip is greater

KABUL, Afghanistan — Citing evidence that Taliban insurgents have expanded their reach across Afghanistan, aid groups and security analysts in the country are challenging as misleading the Obama administration's recent claim that insurgents now control less territory than they did a year ago.

"Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year," said Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization that analyzes security dangers for aid groups.

"We don't see COIN has had any impact on the five-year trajectory," he said, referring to the counterinsurgency strategy that U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has championed.

While U.S.-led forces have driven insurgents out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, Taliban advances in the rest of the country may have offset those gains, a cross section of year-end estimates suggests.

Insurgent attacks have jumped at least 66 percent this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

A 20 percent increase in civilian casualties in 2010 and the highest coalition death toll in nine years of war add to the belief in Afghanistan that insecurity is growing, not declining.

"I can't understand how they can say it is more secure than last year," said Hashim Mayar, the acting director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 Afghan and international aid groups working in Afghanistan. "Insecurity has extended to some parts of the county that were relatively safe last year."

President Obama offered the assessment of diminished Taliban control on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit to the country.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated the claim two weeks later in discussing the findings of a 40-page still-secret assessment of U.S. progress in Afghanistan that was announced Dec. 16.

"As a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago," Gates said.