Spring is in the air in Afghanistan. The snow is melting, the opium poppy harvest is over, and religious madrasas in neighboring Pakistan are on recess.
So it's time for the Taliban’s annual spring offensive — as the insurgents themselves announced in a statement last week.
As promised, the annual escalation of violence started punctually on Monday, as waves of attacks across the country left at least 21 people dead.
Insurgents killed nine policemen at a checkpoint in Helmand province — a Taliban stronghold — while an attack on a justice ministry building in Jalalabad, in the east, killed five civilians and two policemen. Militants on motorbikes also attacked a checkpoint in Ghazni, south of Kabul, killing three people, while in Parwan province, north of Kabul, a rocket hit a market, killing two civilians.
'The Taliban launches a spring offensive each year around this time and the reason for that is that the weather is changing.'
In the capital, rockets landed inside the grounds of Kabul international airport, causing no damage, while other missiles hit the NATO base at Bagram, just north of the city.
In other words, it's that time of the year in Afghanistan.
The video below, by a local news organization, shows the aftermath of the attack in Jalalabad, where security forces engaged in a four-hour gunbattle with militants inside the seized building.
A spokesman for the Taliban claimed responsibility for some of Monday’s attacks, as the militants delivered on day one of what they promised would be a phase of intensified violence.
“Like previous years, the main target of the current year’s blessed Jihadi operation shall be the foreign invaders and their backers,” the Taliban said in their statement on May 8. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has ambitions of continuing the sacred obligation of Jihad with the backing of its Muslim nation until the expulsion of every last infidel invader and establishment of an Islamic government.”
While foreign military and civilians remain a target, the Taliban is increasingly fighting its battle against Afghanistan’s security forces, who have made substantial progress in recent years and are preparing to take on the insurgency with no outside help.
'In the last election, the reputation of the Taliban was seriously undermined. People didn't care much about the Taliban's threats.'
The upcoming fighting season is a test on them, as much as on the Taliban themselves.
“The Taliban launches a spring offensive each year around this time and the reason for that is that the weather is changing,” Ahmad Majidyar, a security analyst focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told VICE News. “The next one or two months will be the peak of violence in Afghanistan, but this year it happens at a much more sensitive time.”
This year’s onslaught comes halfway through a presidential election that was widely seen as a success for the Afghan government and security forces — and a failure for the Taliban that pledged to disrupt it. It is also the last major Taliban offensive before the withdrawal of most foreign troops, scheduled for the end of the year.
“With less risk of attack from international forces, the insurgents are massing bigger groups of fighters and getting into an increasing number of face-to-face ground engagements with Afghan security personnel,” a report released by the International Crisis Group (ICG) said on Monday. “The rising attacks show that the insurgents are able to motivate their fighters in the absence of foreign troops, shifting their rhetoric from calls to resist infidel occupation to a new emphasis on confronting the ‘puppets’ or ‘betrayers of Islam’ in the government.”
Last year, VICE News embedded with the Afghan National Army in Kandahar to check up on the force’s preparation for the annual “killing season.” Watch the Killing Time in Kandahar series here.
Exiting president Hamid Karzai has repeatedly refused to sign an agreement to keep US troops in the country beyond the 2014 deadline, though the leading presidential candidates have said they will.
A run-off vote is expected for mid-June, with Abdullah Abdullah holding a large lead on Ashraf Ghani.
'The Taliban’s strategy right now is to just wait out the foreign troops.'
The Taliban had pledged to use all force to disrupt the April 5 election, but while they did carry out several deadly attacks on voting day and in the weeks leading up to it, the turnout to the polls was large, if somewhat uneven, across the country’s provinces.
“In the last election, the reputation of the Taliban was seriously undermined. Before the election they vowed to disrupt the process, but that backfired and we saw that the turnout to vote was much higher than in previous elections,” Majidyar said. “People didn’t care much about the Taliban's threats, and now they‘ll redouble their efforts to undermine the upcoming round of elections, to make up for the damage to their image last time.”
But the Taliban have gained ground and confidence in Afghanistan’s rural areas and outlying provinces, where ethnic and tribal tensions continue. The mistreatment of local residents at the hands of Afghan forces also strengthens the insurgency in these regions. The emergence of splinter groups, like Mahaz-e-Fedayeen, is not helping either, the ICG report said, predicting that the conflict is about to get worse despite significant security gains.
“The overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks,” the report said, noting however that “none of these trends mean that Afghanistan is doomed to repeat the post-Soviet state collapse of the early 1990s, particularly if there is continued and robust international support.”
“The Taliban’s strategy right now is to just wait out the foreign troops,” Majidyar added. “But after they leave they will try to come back with force. Are they able to take over Kabul and defeat the Kabul government and the Afghan security forces? I don’t believe so. But they can increase their presence and influence in rural areas that, if they remain unchecked, could provide a haven for foreign groups, including al Qaeda.”
In 2013, the Taliban inflicted almost as many casualties on Afghan security forces as they suffered themselves — a first that had some worried the balance of power would eventually tip back in their favor.
'It will be a campaign of spectacular attacks and intimidation, to project power, that they are still relevant, they are still there.'
But the Taliban are nowhere close to the capacity they had in the 1990s, and the current Afghan government enjoys broader legitimacy than previous ones — a support only enhanced by the recent election.
The Taliban’s spring offensive is then more about recuperating their reputation than making any real advancements on the ground.
“They will focus on spectacular attacks and suicide attacks in order to undermine the Afghan government, and to show their supporters that the foreign troops are not leaving voluntarily but that they are forcing them out,” Majidyar said, adding that the insurgents don’t have the capacity to gain ground in the country’s urban centers. “We will not see an all-out, massive war by the Taliban this season, it will be more of a campaign of spectacular attacks and intimidation, to project power, that they are still relevant, they are still there.”
The Taliban’s spring offensive is helped by the warmer weather, and other seasonal factors. The end of the opium poppy harvesting season frees up farmers and workers who are now out of work and able to join the insurgents, while the revenue from opium sales finances some of the militants’ operations. Religious schools in nearby Pakistan also close for the season, meaning their students can join the battle across the border.
“A lot of their foot soldiers are seasonal fighters,” Majidyar said. “They come and fight alongside the Taliban during the spring and summer and then they disappear, either because they are busy cultivating opium or because they just go back to Pakistan, to their madrasas.”
Photo via Flickr
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi