U.S. expects Afghan Taliban will launch spring campaign to regain lost ground

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 4, 2011

IN KABUL American military officials in Afghanistan expect that the Taliban will mount a spring campaign to regain ground lost to U.S. troops last year and use suicide bombing teams to strike at those associated with the Afghan government or coalition forces.

But U.S. commanders in Kabul, as well as officers working in insurgent strongholds in the south and east, said their troops are better positioned than they were last year to fend off the insurgency, now that they have 70,000 new Afghan forces and have seized control of some Taliban sanctuaries.

"I believe their strategy's going to have to change," said Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, referring to insurgents. He said during a tour of two southern provinces last week that he expected more Taliban attacks on "soft targets" such as the newly created village defense forces, as well as former insurgents who have switched sides, and anyone else who "supports our efforts."

"We're seeing the beginnings of that through these multiple suicide bombers trying to create a sensational attack that has far-reaching impact," Rodriguez said, referring to a spate of recent bombings targeting hotels, banks and supermarkets. "It will take courage on the part of the Afghan people and Afghan leaders to lead their way through that, and we're going to support them."

Many in Afghanistan are skeptical about the progress cited by U.S. military commanders. The level of violence in the country, which usually dips during the winter, remains higher than in previous years. Rampant government corruption persists, undermining public support. The Taliban leadership remains protected in Pakistan. And Afghans have grown increasingly frustrated with the presence of foreign troops. The departing deputy head of the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan, Robert Watkins, said last month that the insurgency has moved to new parts of the country and that security is "at its lowest point" since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

U.S. military commanders stress that they will not know for sure how they are doing until the spring. For several years, the insurgency has come back stronger after the winter rest, expanding its reach.

The beginning of the fighting season coincides with a looming decision over how many U.S. troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan beginning in July, President Obama's deadline to begin the drawdown.

During the past year, U.S. Marines stationed in the southern province of Helmand have taken control of all the major towns along the Helmand River valley, where 90 percent of residents live, said Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine commander. The Marines have taken back violent areas such as Marja, Sangin and Gereshk, forcing insurgents to shift to nighttime intimidation and hit-and-run attacks, he said.

"There's less and less ground, very little ground, that's under contention, and there's more and more of it that we control and really dominate," Mills said in an interview. "We control all of the key population centers, every one of them along the river."

But Mills, like other commanders, said he expects a Taliban resurgence in the spring aimed at taking back former strongholds, particularly the areas where the insurgents raised money through opium trafficking.

In eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been killing and capturing insurgents at record rates, although havens in Pakistan protect the Taliban leadership and allow its ranks to regenerate. Since June, the NATO coalition has killed, wounded or detained 5,200 suspected militants in eastern Afghanistan and eliminated 500 mid- to low-level insurgent leaders, said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, the region's commander.

"I think we've thwarted or halted the momentum the enemy had, and I really think we've started to turn it the other way. I think we won't know that until the spring," Campbell said.

Rodriguez told Marines in Helmand and Nimruz provinces that their goal should be to provide a level of security that would allow Afghans to resume their normal lives. But he warned that the road ahead would not be easy and urged Marines to maintain realistic expectations.

"We're never going to get rid of the insurgency in the next three years. We're never going to finish off the criminal patronage networks," Rodriguez said.

"We're never going to get rid of the poor leadership totally, and we're never going to get all the bad international practices fixed," he added. "But we can decrease them all. We can control them."

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