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Afghan Taliban promises to strike NATO troops, Western contractors in coming days

After weeks of unusual lull, the Afghan Taliban said Thursday that it will launch its annual “spring offensive” next week with deadly strikes on government facilities, NATO troops and Western contractors.

In a statement, the Taliban said the attacks would begin Monday and continue into the summer as part of a final push to “completely cleanse” Afghanistan of foreign influence. The campaign will coincide with the pending second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, as well as the continued withdrawal of most remaining NATO forces from Afghanistan.

The Taliban dubbed the planned offensive “Khaybar,” referring to a famous war in the early years of Islamic history.

“Like previous years, the main target of the current year’s Jihadi operations shall be the foreign invaders and their backers under various names like spies, military and civilian contractors and everyone working for them, like translators, administrators and logistics personnel,” the statement said.

Since the U.S.-backed coalition drove the Taliban from power in 2001, the militants have regrouped each spring when the snow melts and carried out deadly strikes on coalition and Afghan troops and government buildings.

So far this year, however, the Taliban has struggled to gain new territory or mount spectacular attacks against government installations in Kabul.

In the weeks leading up to the first round of the Afghan presidential election on April 5, there was widespread fear that the Taliban would launch of wave of attacks that would cripple the electoral process. However, though there were several attacks aimed at foreigners in Kabul — including deadly assaults on a Lebanese restaurant in January and the Serena Hotel in March — the Taliban was largely unsuccessful in persuading Afghans to stay away from the polls. Nearly 7 million ballots were cast, a turnout of about 60 percent.

There has been some violence during the past month, including a shooting at Christian hospital on April 4 that killed three Americans. But that attack was carried out by a lone police officer, and the Taliban denied responsibility.

Some analysts have speculated that the Taliban had recently been limiting their operations due to a growing backlash among Afghan residents over their targeting civilians. After a popular Afghan journalist was killed along with his wife and two of his children in the attack on the Serena, about 100 journalists mounted a 15-day boycott of Taliban statements and references.

On Thursday, the Taliban stressed in its statement that it will take extra precautions to try to avoid civilian casualties: “The main targets . . . shall be the military gatherings of foreign invading forces, their diplomatic centers and convoys as well as the military bases. Such war techniques which shall inflict maximum losses on the invaders while preventing . . . losses on the ordinary civilians.”

Still, Taliban strikes on heavily fortified military or government targets often end up killing more civilians than troops or government officials.

And if the attacks resume, they could complicate the planning for the presidential runoff next month. That election will likely pit former foreign secretary Abdullah Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani, a former finance secretary.

But American and Afghan military commanders remain optimistic that the Afghan National Army and police force will be able to disrupt and repel many of the attacks that the Taliban hopes to carry out this year.

They say Afghan security forces are now taking fewer casualties, while more Taliban fighters are being killed and captured than in previous years.

Atiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan general and security analyst, said the latest Taliban threats amount to little more than “psychological war.”

“This will bear no result,” Amarkhail said. “We must have the preparedness to counter their campaign in action, and I believe the security forces have the ability to do so.”

A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry also characterized the Taliban statement as a “propaganda project aimed at covering their military failures in recent months.”

“The national army has the ability to suppress the enemies threat and take this situation under control,” Gen. Zahir Azimi said.

Tim Craig contributed to this report.



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