Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan rose in April and May, the US-led coalition reported, indicating a Taliban comeback after months of declining activity.
Insurgents launched nearly 3,000 attacks around the country in May, up 21% from May 2011, the International Security Assistance Force said Monday. The coalition statistics, which tally everything from rockets and suicide bombings to small-arms fire and roadside bombs, also showed a modest year-on-year rise in insurgent attacks in April, with just under 2,000 violent incidents.
This violence reversed 11 consecutive months during which insurgent attacks dropped from the previous year's levels, a metric that coalition commanders have frequently highlighted as evidence that the Taliban had lost the initiative in the war.
The recent jump in attacks, by contrast, shows that the Taliban remain far from defeated ahead of the planned withdrawal of international troops in 2014. This year's Taliban's spring offensive has included high-profile attacks, including the storming last week of a popular lakeside resort outside Kabul.
"Every day, 20 to 25 of our youths sacrifice their lives for this homeland and are martyred," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a special parliamentary address last week, noting the recent surge in attacks on Afghan forces.
In Washington, defense officials noted that despite the large increase in the month of May, the overall level of enemy attacks remains lower for the year. "Compared to last year, enemy-initiated attacks are still down by 6%," said a defense official.
Isaf attributed the rise in the number of attacks to an earlier-than-normal start to the annual fighting season.
Insurgent groups depend in part on revenue from the opium trade, and the fighting season usually begins in earnest only after the poppy harvest is complete. The number of attacks tends to dip at the beginning of the harvest followed by a few weeks of fewer incidents, according to ISAF.
But a poppy blight cut short this year's production, and the reduced poppy harvest led to the increase in violence in May compared with the year before, defense officials said. "This year's harvest started later and finished earlier in the most poppy-prevalent areas of Afghanistan compared to last year," an Isaf release said.
The report also indicated that attacks rose in areas where opium isn't heavily cultivated.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied any connection between insurgent strategy and the opium harvest. "We had been reserving all our military strength to the spring offensive," he said. According to Mr. Mujahid, insurgents had varied their tactics depending on the region of the country.
"In the south...we focus more on land mines. In the east, we do confrontations and ambushes. In the central provinces, we use mass martyrdom-seeking attacks," he said, referring to coordinated assaults with suicide attackers.
Earlier this year, Taliban representatives had vowed to step up activities during the upcoming fighting season.
The latest coalition report was largely "spin," said military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, because it failed to take into account the full Taliban resurgence. The report, he said, focused on direct attacks on U.S. and allied forces, while overlooking what he called the more important Taliban efforts to dominate the population through low-level violence and intimidation.
"What they assume is that you measure things largely in terms of the enemy's willingness to directly attack Isaf and the better ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces]," Mr. Cordesman said. "What they don't count is that the strategy has shifted to intimidating the local population [and] riding out the withdrawal of Nato forces."