Afghanistan's neighbors are helping destabilize the country as "time is running out" on the U.S. effort here, according to a senior intelligence official with the international military force in Kabul.
The official accused Iran and Pakistan of maintaining links with the Afghan Taliban and singled out Pakistan for providing "insufficient pressure" on Afghan insurgent leaders who enjoy safe havens inside Pakistan -- despite U.S. pressure to expel or fight them.
Iran and Pakistan's relationships with the Afghan Taliban "are destabilizing relationships that are not helpful," the official said, speaking to a small group of journalists on the condition the official's name not be used.
Since President Obama announced early this month he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, senior United States officials have warned that one of the main risks to the Afghan strategy was if Pakistan decided not to crack down on militants who use its soil to attack Western troops in Afghanistan.
But the intelligence official linked Iranian actions with those by Pakistan more directly than most military or civilian officials have done, and did so while painting a dire picture of the state of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The official described the Taliban an "increasingly confident," "increasingly effective" and "growing more cohesive."
"They've increased their capacity," the official said.
"Kinetic" activity is up 300 percent since 2007, the official said, and up an additional 60 percent since 2008 -- mostly because of a massive increase in the use of roadside bombs.
In 2004, the official said, there were 326 incidents involving roadside bombs, which the military refers to as improvised explosives devices, or IEDs. That number jumped to 1,922 in 2006, 4,169 in 2008 and more than 7,200 in 2009.
And in the same time, the bombs have become more lethal.
From 2003 to 2006, the official said, the majority of IEDs contained 25 or fewer pounds of explosives, usually derived from military munitions left over from decades of war in Afghanistan. But by December 2009, most IEDs contained between 26 and 50 pounds of homemade explosive, and a significant portion of them contained more than 100 pounds.
"We've had 2,000-pound bombs take out one of our MRAPs," the official said, referring to the military's safest vehicle, designed to withstand the destructive power of a roadside bomb.
"Whoever is [the insurgents'] logistics chief, we ought to take lessons from them," the official joked.
The military has come to terms only recently with how effective the Taliban has become in targeting Western troops and in exploiting vacuums created by a weak and inefficient Afghan government.
That effectiveness has contributed to a doubling of U.S. fatalities this year over last year. It also has allowed the Taliban huge influence across southern and eastern Afghanistan, where there are pockets of space entirely controlled by the Taliban -- though some of those pockets are beginning to decrease as more United States troops arrive in Afghanistan.
The increased Taliban effectiveness has allowed the Taliban to expand its influence to western and northern Afghanistan, where it has historically been the weakest.
Many villages in the northern province of Kunduz, where a new NATO supply line begins, and the Western provinces of Badghis and Faryab, are too dangerous for even local residents to visit. They were safe as recently as one year ago.
The intelligence official admitted the violence in the west and the north began as early as 2005, but it was "misidentified." Therefore, the NATO-led forces did not adapt as quickly as the insurgency did, failing to send enough troops to the country or help the Afghan government fill vacuums the Taliban exploits for funding and recruiting.
The number of troops "has lagged behind a growing insurgency," the official said. If the international forces are going to successfully fight a counterinsurgency, "catch-up ball does not work. ... Time is running out."
The increasing size and effectiveness of the Taliban's military campaign has mirrored a significant increase in its political organization as well, the official admitted.
The Taliban has "shadow governors" in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces who oversee insurgent operations and collect taxes and bribes, the official said.
And since this summer, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has tried to better organize the insurgency, instilling strict guidance on how to win over the local population -- guidance the official admitted sounds similar to that issued by U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to his own troops.
"A brave son of Islam should not be used for lower and useless targets," a booklet released in Mullah Omar's name said. "The utmost effort should be made to avoid civilian casualties."
The intelligence official admitted the Taliban was often more effective at delivering its message than the NATO-led forces have been.
"Their information operations and media campaign is much better than ours," the official said.
Separate United States officials have said the violence in Afghanistan will not end until Pakistan eliminates the safe havens that the Afghan Taliban enjoy.
Mullah Omar is believed to be based in Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, located about 60 miles from main southern Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing.
The Haqqani family, which U.S. officials blame for more violence than any other insurgent group, is based in the tribal area of North Waziristan along the mountainous border separating eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.
"We know for a fact that they're there and that they have safe havens," the official said.
The intelligence official praised the Pakistani military's efforts against the Pakistani Taliban, which he separated from Taliban that only attacks in Afghanistan. He added that the Pakistani military leadership recognized the threat the Afghan Taliban posed to the region, and was "significantly concerned" by the safe havens inside Pakistan.
The intelligence official added that two of the main factories producing ammonium nitrate for roadside bombs were located in Pakistan, a charge Pakistan denies.
Separate Western officials have argued Iran's negative influence on Afghanistan has increased in recent months. One Western official familiar with Taliban financing said Iran has knowingly allowed money to flow through the country that eventually is destined for the Taliban.
Iran has denied that charge, and most United States officials point out Iran has not chosen to send particularly effective roadside bombs into Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq.
In the end, the intelligence official acknowledged that 2010 would prove critical to the war. NATO-led forces, the official said, have only one year to "prove we are demonstrating success."