The Taliban's threatened "spring offensive" appeared to escalate this month, despite a denial May 10 by Regional Command-East commander Maj. Gen. John Campbell that the insurgency had intensified. At dawn on May 9, the Taliban attacked Afghan police forces in Wama district, in the mountainous eastern province of Nuristan. Some 200 to 400 insurgents reportedly hit four security outposts and a barracks for Afghan security forces. The attacks reportedly lasted for hours, with two insurgents killed and three Afghan security personnel injured in the fighting. Helicopters belonging to the Afghan Defense Ministry, including two attack helicopters, ferried a quick reaction force to reinforce the positions, though by the time they were en route the assaults had already been beaten back. One helicopter crashed, supposedly after striking a tree, with only injuries reported. Meanwhile, on May 10, an estimated 100 Taliban fighters on motorcycles reportedly attacked the village of Abduraman in the northern portion of Jowzjan province, in a normally quiet part of Afghanistan northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif. Afghan government officials said 17 Taliban and a civilian were killed in a firefight that lasted two hours. The attack reportedly was in retaliation for the villagers' allegiance moving closer to the Afghan government. (click here to enlarge image) The first large, coordinated Taliban attack this spring was carried out May 7, when an estimated 60 to 100 Taliban fighters attacked Afghan security forces in and around Kandahar. The attack began about 1 p.m. with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) being fired at the provincial governor's residential complex. Over the course of the day, coordinated RPG and small arms attacks were carried out against other targets, including the headquarters of the Afghan national chief of police and of the transportation police, police substations, and various Afghan security force and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) installations across Kandahar city and Arghandab district. Outside the city, mortars were reportedly fired at security forces during an engagement in which 11 insurgents were reportedly killed, along with two Afghan soldiers and three civilians. Afghan security forces also appear to have prevented the effective employment of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in the city: Three suicide bombers detonated their VBIEDs prematurely and two of them were shot while trying to attack police offices. Afghan police reported that some of the Taliban attackers were Pakistani. The sizes of the Taliban formations in these attacks, which came just weeks after the large-scale jailbreak from Sarposa prison, are noteworthy. In recent years, the Taliban have often been wary of massing fighters in one location for larger, direct-fire engagements after several high-profile attacks on isolated ISAF outposts. Although these attacks came close to overrunning the positions, they also came at an enormous cost in terms of men and materiel and did not ultimately succeed. The recent spate of larger-scale attacks across the country is a reminder of the reach and resources of the Taliban and why they perceive themselves to be winning. Just as noteworthy, of course, was the performance of Afghan security forces, no doubt aided by ISAF advisers and air support. Though the attacks were large and ambitious, even the sustained assaults in Kandahar did not result in the Taliban's seizing the harder and better defended positions. Even in Jowzjan and Nuristan provinces, Afghan security forces were able to hold their own. Afghan reinforcements were available and committed to the fight in Nuristan (albeit after the attackers had been beaten back). Another element to note about these attacks is the casualty count, which was remarkably low on both sides. This may reflect, in part, a Taliban attempt to reduce their own casualties in an effort to conserve forces. Unlike past attacks in which large Taliban forces were more heavily committed and thereby suffered greater losses, these most recent attacks may suggest the Taliban want to hedge their bets. This is consistent with the classic strategy of an insurgency, which often must survive against a more powerful counterinsurgency force by remaining elusive and hiding among the people. By massing its fighters, an insurgent force can be found, fixed and destroyed by heavier firepower. But the battles of the past week seem to show that the Taliban were able to move in larger formations and avoid suffering decisive casualties. While these sorts of symbolic attacks have considerable value for the Taliban, they are a reminder of the stalemate — at least for the moment — between the Taliban and foreign forces at their peak numbers (momentarily) and indigenous government security forces that seemed to acquit themselves reasonably well in the recent fighting.
Growing U.S. suspicions about the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden being sheltered by Pakistani officials and the unilateral U.S. raid in Pakistan in which bin Laden was killed have brought relations between the two countries back to the fore. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who is viewed favorably in Islamabad, visited both Afghanistan and Pakistan this past week, saying he would not apologize for the U.S. action but wanted to press the "reset button" in U.S.-Pakistani ties. Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict Kerry's visit may calm things down a bit, but it alone cannot repair the disconnect between Pakistan and the United States, which have divergent strategic interests. There is also pressure building within Pakistan to seriously revise its relationship with the United States in order to give Islamabad more leverage. And for the first time in Pakistan's history there is a significant level of open criticism of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment for its failure to know that bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad for years. Government officials also are being criticized for bringing the country to the point where U.S. forces can operate with impunity on Pakistani soil at a time and place of their choosing. This public pressure has forced the military's top brass, including the head of the country's main intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, to give a rare and detailed briefing on national security to the parliament on May 13. During the briefing, ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha had tough words for the United States, reportedly revealing that he got into a shouting match with CIA Director Leon Panetta the last time Pasha was in Washington and telling the lawmakers that, "At a very difficult moment in our history, the U.S. has let us down…. This fear that we can't live without the U.S. is wrong." Caught between internal and external pressures, the Pakistanis will be spending a great deal of time in the coming months reassessing their options; cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan and Pakistani relationships with various entities in Afghanistan will both be matters of discussion.