KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents once derided as a ragtag rabble unable to match U.S. troops have transformed into a fighting force — one advanced enough to mount massive conventional attacks and claim American lives at a record pace.
The U.S. military reported its 101st death of the year in Afghanistan last week. The total number of U.S. dead last year — 111 — was a record and is likely to be surpassed.
Top U.S. generals, European presidents and analysts say the blame lies to the east, in militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. As long as those areas remain havens where fighters arm, train, recruit and plot increasingly sophisticated ambushes, the Afghan war will continue to sour, they say.
"The U.S. is now losing the war against the Taliban," Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a report Thursday. A resurgent al-Qaida, which was harbored by the Taliban in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks, could soon follow, Cordesman warned.
Cordesman called for the United States to treat Pakistani territory as a combat zone if Pakistan does not act. "Pakistan may officially be an ally, but much of its conduct has effectively made it a major threat to U.S. strategic interests," he wrote.
An influx of Chechen, Turkish, Uzbek and Arab fighters has helped increase the Taliban's military precision, including an ambush by 100 fighters last week that killed 10 French soldiers, and a rush on a U.S. outpost last month by 200 militants that killed nine Americans.
Multidirection attacks, flawlessly executed ambushes and powerful roadside and suicide bombs mean the United States and the 40-nation NATO-led force will in all likelihood have its deadliest year in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.
Complicating efforts to calm the country, President Hamid Karzai's influence barely extends outside the capital. The Interior Ministry is seen as uniformly corrupt, and opium poppy cultivation has soared in recent years.
Karzai acknowledged last week that Afghanistan still lacks a properly functioning government and that corruption is rampant. He said he will run for a second term next year in hopes of addressing those problems.
The president also blamed the rise in Afghan violence directly on Afghanistan's and NATO's neglect of the sanctuaries, training grounds and financial center of the Taliban — a clear reference to Pakistan.
Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. analyst who has studied Afghanistan for years, said Taliban militants have simply become better at war after seven years of practice against U.S. and NATO forces. Fighters, particularly militant commanders, are also using their sanctuary in Pakistan to devastating effect, he said.
"I think there's got to be a strike on the leadership structure, including Mullah Omar, Siraj Haqqani, and (Gulbuddin) Hekmatyar," who reside in Pakistan, said Jones. "As the insurgency has become more sophisticated, many of the senior leaders continue to exist, and they are one of the reasons the insurgency is getting better."
Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said it appears the United States is making some of the same mistakes in Afghanistan that it did in Iraq, such as underfunding the training of the Afghan army.
He also called for an increase in the use of "soft power," such as aid work, and "some sort of effort in reconciliation."