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."
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that rival militant organizations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have increasingly been teaming up in deadly raids, in what military and intelligence officials say is the insurgents' latest attempt to regain the initiative after months of withering attacks from American and allied forces.
New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like "a syndicate," joining forces in ways not seen before. After one recent attack on a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, a check of the enemy dead found evidence that the fighters were from three different factions, military officials said.
Intelligence assessments offer evidence of a worrisome new trend in which extremist commanders and their insurgent organizations are coordinating attacks and even combining their foot soldiers sent to carry out specific raids.
The change reveals the resilience and flexibility of the militant groups. But at the same time, officials say, the unusual and expanding alliances suggest that the factions are feeling new military pressure. American and NATO officials say these decisions by insurgent leaders are the result of operations from American, Afghan and allied forces on one side of the border, and from the Pakistani military — and American drone strikes — on the other.
These extremist groups have begun granting one another passage through their areas of control in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharing new recruits and coordinating their propaganda responses to American and allied actions on the ground, officials said.
American military officials sought to cast these recent developments as a reaction to changes in the American and allied strategies in the past year, including aggressive military offensives against the enemy coupled with attempts to provide visible and reliable protection to the local Afghan population.
"They have been forced to cooperate due to the effect our collective efforts have had on them," said Lt. Col. Patrick R. Seiber, spokesman for American and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama offered the assessment of diminished Taliban control on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit.
"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control, and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future," Obama told U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield.
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.
Last month, the Pentagon concluded that Afghan insurgents' "capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding."
Asked whether that assessment conflicts with the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, a military spokesman said that both could be true.
"You can, in fact, lose ground but be more geographically dispersed," said U.S. Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the communications director for the American-led military in Afghanistan.
Even so, Smith said the military couldn't vouch for the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, which he said was based on a CIA study, not a military one.
"It's not a metric that we're able to validate from an ISAF perspective," he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the official name of the coalition. "Not that I disagree with it, but the agency that does that is a three-letter agency."