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Will the Taliban announce a Spring Offensive this year?

April 10, 2020

Summary: An annual occurrence, the Taliban’s announcement and naming of their Spring Offensive was an important propaganda event and coincides with an uptick in violence.  Given the peace talk potential this year and the likely departure of American troops, this may not be a good time to announce significant renewed fighting of any sort.  But if they ignore it, could this undermine leadership command and control and the military pressure they need?  What might they do?

Every year since at least 2008, the Taliban commencement of their new Spring Offensive has become a symbolic part of the psychological – and actual – battlefield.  Although in recent years the Taliban never really stop fighting in winter, it roughly delineates the beginning of the fighting “season” when the winter has gone and the weather has improved enough to allow mobility in and through the mountains.  Most years there are a few “spectacular” terrorist attacks immediately after the announcement.

This year, theoretically at least, is very different.  After a week long (and mainly successful) “Reduction in Violence”, a peace deal was signed (29 February) between the Taliban and the US, with the intention of facilitating a phased US military withdrawal.  However inevitably flawed they are turning out to be, Afghans are now in the early stages of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  The situation is changing.

So I am posing the question – will the Taliban announce their Spring Offensive?  They normally announce it in April, although they have announced it once in late March and three times in early May.  It seems like a “no-brainer” that they will not, given the new peace talk developments and the likely withdrawal of the US military presence.  But it was an important symbol – a rallying call that gave encouragement, incentives and guidance.  What would mean if they did?  What would it mean if they did not?  The Taliban need, above all, to keep their fighters together and coherent.  It is important to keep the fighting capability potent, morale high and for them to obey the commands of the leadership.  The Spring Offensive announcement was an annual “pep talk”.  Can they get away with simply saying nothing and not acknowledging the issue?  Some possible options:

The Taliban announce a Spring Offensive

If they announce it, it implies very strongly that the war goes on, and even that they consider the talks to be dead.  Perhaps this might be tied to their recent walk out from negotiations about prisoner release.  This is perhaps unlikely: the talks are at a really early stage, both sides are going to strut and posture, staking out their perceived territory and testing the other side.  Walk outs will be a natural feature of this process.  The talks have not yet really begun, let alone have collapsed.

But there might be a more nuanced declaration – “the Afghan government remains illegitimate and the war continues in the rural areas against the ANA and ANP”.  Which is pretty much what the Taliban are doing.  They want the US to have no reason to stay and to depart as soon as possible.  The battle for physical, territorial control, district by district, of the country is still important.  This could make mass casualty terrorist attacks in Kabul and the provoking and targeting of the international forces a bad idea.

The Taliban do not announce a Spring Offensive

This could suggest that the Taliban have bought into the peace process.

The Taliban “say and do nothing”

This suggests that the Taliban have not thought about it, or do not know what to do.  Or are trying to avoid the issue.  The Taliban are quite media-savvy these days.  It would be a surprise if they did not recognise or acknowledge the issue in some way – if only to explain to their fighters.

The Taliban continue with last year’s “Victory” Spring Offensive or put it on pause for a year

The Taliban have used “Al Faath” (“Victory”) twice now (last year and in 2010) as the title for an annual Spring Offensive.  This could be a “default” option – put it on hold or to leave it as it is, without necessarily drawing strong attention to it.

This post is merely to pose the question.  I do not know what the answer is but will look on with interest.


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