WASHINGTON -- A recent U.S. intelligence assessment has raised the estimated number of full-time Taliban-led insurgents fighting in Afghanistan to at least 25,000, underscoring how the crisis has worsened even as the U.S. and its allies have beefed up their military forces, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The U.S. official, who requested anonymity because the assessment is classified, said the estimate represented an increase of at least 5,000 fighters, or 25 percent, over what an estimate found last year.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry assured Afghans that America would continue to fight until "extremists and insurgents" were defeated in the war-torn nation.
The new intelligence estimate suggests that such a fight would be difficult. Not included in the 25,000 tally are the part-time fighters -- those Afghans who plant bombs or support the insurgents in other ways in return for money -- and also the criminal gangs who sometimes make common cause with the Taliban or other Pakistan-based groups.
The assessment attributed the growth in the Taliban and their major allies, such as the Haqqani Network and Hezb-e-Islami, to a number of factors, including a growing sense among many Afghans that the insurgents are gaining ground over U.S.-led NATO troops and Afghan security forces.
"The rise can be attributed to, among other things, a sense that the central government in Kabul isn't delivering (on services), increased local support for insurgent groups, and the perception that the Taliban and others are gaining a firmer foothold and expanding their capabilities," the U.S. official said.
"They (the insurgents) don't need to win a popularity contest," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the center-left Brookings Institution in Washington. "They are actually doing a good job in creating a complex psychological brew. The first part is building on frustration with the government. The second part is increasing their own appeal or at least taking the edge off of the hatred that people had felt for them before. But on top of that they are selectively using intimidation to stoke a climate of fear. And on top of that they have momentum."
James Dobbins, a retired ambassador who served as the first U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, said the new estimate shows how the war, which entered its ninth year this month, has been intensifying.
"It tells you that things are getting worse, and that would suggest that the current (U.S.-led troop) levels are inadequate," Dobbins said. "But it doesn't lead you to a formula that tells you what the adequate troop levels should be."
The estimated increase in the insurgents' ranks occurred as the numbers of U.S., British and other Western troops also increased, possibly suggesting that the growth in international forces is bolstering an impression among many Afghans that they're under foreign occupation.
The new estimate comes as the Obama administration debates its new strategy for Afghanistan amid public divisions between senior officials and military commanders.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is seeking as many as 45,000 additional U.S. troops, which would bring the number of U.S. soldiers to more than 100,000. There are 39,000 forces from other countries and an effort is under way to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000 by 2011.
Administration critics of McChrystal's assessment -- led by Vice President Joe Biden -- are promoting a more limited strategy that would require far fewer U.S. troops.
Eikenberry's remarks came at a ceremony honoring the more than 5,500 Afghan police and soldiers who've died since the war began.
"We will continue to stand side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with you and the brave members of your security forces," said Eikenberry at a wreath-laying ceremony in a courtyard of Afghanistan's National Assembly. "We will fight with you, grieve with you, and build a future with you."
Eikenberry is a former U.S. military commander who as ambassador has taken a key role in the Obama administration's efforts to partner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to try to beat back the Taliban insurgency and stabilize the country.
However, the administration's relationship with Karzai has frayed amid allegations of widespread corruption in the Afghan government. In recent weeks, Karzai's relationship with the U.S. has been further strained by mounting evidence of large-scale fraud on his behalf during the Aug. 20 presidential election.
Karzai didn't attend Wednesday's ceremony, and some of his recent public statements have reflected increased tensions with Western diplomats.
At a Sunday news conference, Karzai accused some foreign diplomats of trying to interfere in Afghan affairs. He also said that his government was investigating reports that unidentified foreign helicopters were flying in insurgent-controlled areas in northern provinces.
Karzai never said what nation might be providing those helicopters, but his remarks helped stir speculation that somehow the U.S. was involved.
Eikenberry said Wednesday he'd heard rumors and read articles that the U.S. was secretly helping Afghanistan's enemy with weapons and helicopters. He denounced those reports "as outrageous and baseless. We would never aid the terrorists that attacked us on September 11, that are killing our soldiers, your soldiers, and innocent Afghan civilians every day."
A Karzai campaign team member said Karzai never meant to imply that the helicopters were American.
"We believe what the American ambassador has said, and that the helicopters don't belong to America," said Moen Marastyal, an Afghan parliament member who's worked on the Karzai re-election campaign.
The election has yet to yield a final tally as an electoral complaints commission, which includes three United Nations appointees, reviews about 10 percent of the polling sites for fraudulent ballots. A final tally had been expected this week but it now appears that those results won't come until later this month.
In a preliminary tally, Karzai had more than 54 percent of the vote, and under Afghan electoral law, he'd win the election outright if his final tally remains above 50 percent. If it falls to 50 percent or less, Karzai would face a run-off with the second-place finisher, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
As the vote review drags on, some Western diplomats have proposed that Karzai and his main rival form a coalition government.
Marastyal said that Karzai has been told he has two options: Either agree to form a coalition government or be forced into a runoff election as the final tally tosses out fraudulent votes.
In contrast, Marastyal said that Karzai is under pressure from his own supporters not to forge a coalition government.
"We would have divisions in the government, and there would not be a good result," Marastyal said.
Sarwar Jawadi, an Abdullah spokesman, said his candidate has not agreed to join in a coalition government.
On Wednesday, Eikenberry's public remarks didn't mention any proposals for a coalition government. He said that the U.S. seeks a "reliable Afghan partner," and that the "long, but important election process" should yield a government elected upon the genuine votes of the people."
(Landay reported from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY