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Taliban “Spring Offensive” begins…

April 29, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Standard Taliban annual announcement of a Spring Offensive, very similar to last year.

Photos of Afghan maps 006The Taliban officially announced the commencement of what they described as the 2013 Spring Offensive.  The 814-word statement introduced the “title” of this year’s operation as “Khalid bin Waleed”, a powerful Islamic general under Mohammed, also known as “the Drawn Sword of God”, giving the imagery of battles and conquest.   The Taliban promise “special military tactics”, insider attacks and suicide bombers.  Once again stressing the importance of its fighters avoiding civilian casualties where possible, Afghans were warned to stay away from foreign military and political bases and employees of the Afghan government were called upon to leave the regime and join the ranks of the Taliban.  The statement drew attention to a Taliban “Recruitment Commission” that would protect regime defectors and called upon religious, tribal and societal figures to stop Afghans joining military programmes such as the Afghan army and the militias.


Analysis and Outlook

Taliban flagThe statement is very similar in length, style and tone to last year’s.  The Taliban have been formally announcing their spring offensives since 2008.  The validity and accuracy of the term has been disputed, but it is generally seen to refer to the slow increase in fighting that begins once the winter snows have melted, thus allowing more freedom of movement for fighters.  The trend of fighting increases through the summer, before starting to decline again in approximately October/November.  Many have argued that the Taliban’s increase in combat activity does not, by any stretch of the imagination, represent an “offensive”.

I have a lot of sympathy with the views of this US commander in 2008:

There is no such thing as a spring offensive”, Colonel Pete Johnson, the commander of a taskforce from the 101st Airborne Division…told Reuters.  “I think this year this myth is finally going to be debunked.  Last year was the same thing – it never materialised.  This year it has not materialised and it won’t materialise.”

“Will there be increases in fighting and insurgent activity.  Absolutely.  But it’s a weather-based construct, a seasonal construct, not a deliberate execution of an offensive.  Increased activity is not a coordinated offensive.”

I sense that the Taliban have gradually dragged the term into their jihadist lexicon because so many western analysts and journalists kept going on about it in the 2004 – 2008 period.  The Taliban did not ignore this gift of a propaganda opportunity.  It is unwise to totlly dismiss the Taliban’s claims to an “offensive”, as they do realise they have to launch a few attacks just to maintain credibility.  We should generally expect to see a handful of higher profile “complex” attacks aimed at political/military targets in Kabul, an ISAF military base or PRT in the provinces – Bagram, Helmand, Nangarhar.  Afghan security forces are highly likely to be targeted: ISAF is much less visible and the Afghan targets are less professionally protected than their ISAF counterparts.  If there is a risk, it is in the possible “window of opportunity” imbalances in security as a result of the ISAF withdrawal – perhaps a PRT or outpost is now actually more vulnerable than it was?  The Taliban have demonstrated some skill in combing groups to concentrate on small and isolated targets.

On wider issues, I also sense that the Taliban have reached a plateau in their political and military imagination, both generally, and in their propaganda in particular.  There appears little in the way of creativity or proactive shift in communication direction, merely an ability to make use of modern tools of communication.  Maybe it is too much to expect nuance and creativity from a Spring Offensive statement, but this statement now has the feel of an annual “template”.  There is no political component here, no recognition that dynamics within the country are shifting as the ISAF withdrawal proceeds.  There is nothing beyond urging individual regime members to defect.  Does this suggest that the military faction still hold sway within the leadershhip?  The lack of imagination in their messages after many years of improving actually strikes me as surprising.

In fact, they may even have had to back away a little in these statements as a result of over-confidence in earlier years: in 2009 and 2010 respectively, their Spring Offensives were entitled “Nasrat” (Victory) and “Al-Faath” (Success).  And in January last year, they issued a “Formal proclamation of Islamic victory”.  Have they perhaps at least understood that they might be premature in their announcements and that there are inherent contradictions and credibility issues in declaring victory every year?

I think the Taliban “lack of imagination” argument probably fits the bill here.  But, as a parting analytical “long shot”, the “default setting” tone of the announcement could also be interpreted in a very different way.  What if the Taliban were expecting political changes this year – ie changes that they were planning to initiate?  They might therefore calculate that the annual announcement of Spring operations to which they are now more or less committed (it would be more noteworthy if the Taliban had called off the statement) needs to be made, but kept as bland as possible to keep the troops focused (“business as usual, fight the infidel”), but also to avoid giving anything away…

Finally, the Western intelligence agencies seem to still find the Taliban announcements so much of a threat that they need to be countered: it is surely no coincidence that the Taliban website was taken off-line at the same time the announcement was made?

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