By Jon Hemming
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban hold a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, a think-tank said on Monday, but NATO and the Afghan government rejected the report, saying its figures were not credible.
The findings by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) come in the wake of a series of critical reports on Western-led military and development efforts to put an end to the seven-year Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government is conducting a wide-ranging review of strategy aimed at countering the Taliban guerrilla and bombing campaign which analysts agree has grown in both scale and scope in the last year.
But while the trends in the ICOS report reflected prevailing sentiment on Afghanistan, many of its findings appeared flawed and contained some glaring errors, security analysts said.
"The Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country," ICOS, formerly known as the Senlis Council, said in the report, adding that the figure had risen from 54 percent last year.
ICOS is an independent think-tank and research organisation based in Brazil that has researchers in the region.
The report defines a permanent presence as an average of one or more insurgent attacks per week over the entire year.
According to ICOS, a "permanent presence" then would include many areas of the country where the Taliban traditionally launch a large number of attacks in the spring and summer "fighting season," before melting away during the harsh winter months.
"We don't see the figures in this report as being credible at all," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "The Taliban are only present in the south and east which is already less than 50 percent of the country."
The Afghan government also rejected the report and said "in addition to the questionable methodology of the report and its conceptual confusion, the report has misinterpreted the sporadic, terrorising and media-oriented activities of the Taliban."
CLOSING ON KABUL?
At least 4,000 people have been killed in fighting in Afghanistan this year, around a third of them civilians, according to United Nations figures.
In the traditional Taliban heartlands of the mainly ethnic Pashtun south and east, NATO-led and U.S.-led coalition forces are engaged in daily clashes with militants fighting to overthrow the Afghan government and drive out foreign troops.
But the insurgents generally shy away from massed attacks against Afghan and international troops, preferring "shoot and scoot" ambushes, backed by roadside and suicide bomb attacks.
The Taliban, said Appathurai, "don't control any areas where Afghan and international forces are present. Whenever Afghan or international forces patrol into an area they simply run away."
"So the idea that the Taliban control large swathes of the country is simply impossible," Appathurai said.
ICOS said the Taliban are "closing a noose" around the Afghan capital, Kabul, "establishing bases close to the city from which to launch attacks ... Using these bases, the Taliban and insurgent attacks in Kabul have increased dramatically."
While the Taliban have built up a presence in provinces just to the south, west and east of Kabul in the last year, the number of insurgent attacks inside the city has actually gone down this year, the U.N. says.
That is largely due to a much stronger and highly visible police presence in the city in response to a series of high-profile suicide attacks in Kabul last year.
ICOS said Kabul was "virtually Taliban-free a year ago" and said in the city there were "no police checkpoints at night and few in the day."
An ICOS map of Kabul also showed the area occupied by the U.S. embassy, the sprawling NATO headquarters and the Afghan presidential palace as one of "high Taliban/criminal activity."
(Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Paul Tait)