By Andrei Serenko, Russian political scientist.
It was become clear last year that NATO mission in Afghanistan was stagnated. Marking time in the fight against Taliban and also in social and economic reconstruction of the country has put the task of achieving a radical breakthrough before the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF under the alliance’s command.
Crushing Defeat and Elimination
Meanwhile, the Taliban has clearly recovered. NATO command is well aware that there is a need first and foremost to destroy its infrastructure and the system that trains skill militants and guarantees financial and rear support. This was partially achieved as a part of the operation Medusa, which was launched late this past summer and early autumn but the alliance failed to gain an out right victory.
Inevitably, this is a reason why ISAF has to launch an operation in south Afghanistan and along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Durand Line that divides Pashtun people. Reports presented intensively by Washington and Brussels about the Taliban’s spring offensive have been to a certain extend are a tool for mobilization of the coalition forces in order to guarantee the receipt of reserves and required authority.
Currently, NATO tracks the following military and political targets:
- Defeating the basic militant groups of the Taliban movement that control Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces and killing of its most respected military and political leaders;
- Reaching the Afghan-Pakistani border and setting up security zones along it;
- Guaranteeing conditions for carrying out speedy work in social and economic reconstruction on the territories liberated from Taliban;
- Achieving an agreement on cooperation with of Pashtun tribal leaders living along the Afghan-Pakistani border (either to eliminate Taliban in the long future or to transform it into a more moderate political movement with new leaders who are ready to hold talks with the authorities in Kabul).
To this end military operation has to be carried out in several provinces in Afghanistan. Its plan was worked out with the direct involvement of the Chief of US Southern Command General Bantz Craddock and examined at the ally’s defence ministers meeting in Seville in February and provides for stepping up fighting in the south of the country and transferring the function of guaranteeing security to the Afghan-Pakistani border.
In fact, the Pakistani armed forces might be involved NATO operations since the Taliban bases are in the Pakistani province of Northern Wizeristan. Most likely, forces of the Western coalition might intrude into Pakistan in case of success in southern provinces in Afghanistan because it is impossible to talk about final victory without defeating the Taliban movement’s rear infrastructure.
The current activity of US senior officials and representatives from NATO headquarters towards Pakistan shows that Pakistan remains to be the weak link of the West’s anti-Taliban coalition. These officials urge Pakistan to step up its fight against Taliban and threaten to impose sanction in case it refuses to do so. In these circumstances the deployment of NATO forces to Pakistan for cleansing it from Taliban seems to be if not inevitable but a quite possible move.
Judging by all, Islamabad experiences quite mixed feelings towards Taliban. The Pakistani authorities are afraid of the extremist movement, of course. But at the same time they have no desire to see ISAF soldiers in the north of the country. It’s no mere chance that the Pakistani authorities draw up occasionally projects to lay mines along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This should disrupt Taliban militants to cross the Durand Line freely. But it might hamper the invasion of Pakistan by NATO contingent too. The disappearance of Taliban deprives Islamabad of an effective lever that can influence the political situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Taliban’s military and political tasks are being determined from the fact that NATO will inevitably launch a large-scale offensive in spring and summer this year. Clearly, coalition forces have been preparing for carrying out a large-scale operation in southern Afghanistan, and consequently, Taliban has been making arrangements to defend its positions in the southern Afghan provinces and its rear infrastructure along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Taliban will make attempts to preserve its control over the territory where Pashtun people live, Pushtunistan and hamper ISAF offensive and prompt the Western coalition forces to shift to offensive tactics.
To achieve these targets Taliban will have to impose on the rival defensive tactics in many regions of the country and prompt it to disperse its forces by distracting their attention to local conflicts. For one, Taliban tried to do so in the southern Helmand province early February by capturing the city of Musa-Kala.
The utmost important task for Taliban is to launch a pre-emptive attack on advancing ISAF contingent and a preventive offensive that might thwart plans and schedule of NATO operation and prompt to concentrate forces and units in Kandahar and Helmand. This should be the key task, which has been widely advertised by the world mass media outlets as the Taliban’s spring offensive.
The optimal scenario of Taliban’s response could be outstripping offensive by militants on Kandahar and at the same time carrying out many sabotages in Kabul with capturing small settlements and cities in several provinces.
Suicide-bombers could play a significant role in Taliban’s preventive actions to foil the NATO offensive. A Taliban commander Mullah Hayat Khan says the movement has now 2 000 suicide bombers, who are ready to carry out attacks, while the reserve group of bombers is estimated at about 5 000.
According to the Afghanistan.ru web site’s editor-in-chief Omar Nessar, reports from southern provinces of Afghanistan say that the Taliban, which has significant financial resources, recruits actively suicide bombers among local people. A terrorist attack carried out at the Bagram base during the US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit there on February 27 shows the acts of bombers are proved to be effective.
Fear of soldiers of the Western coalition before the suicide bombers has led to undesirable results. NATO servicemen shot dead several civilians in Kandahar alone by taking them mistakenly as suicide bombers. Such incidents have provoked dissatisfaction among people, and this worsens the relations between residents of Afghan cities and villages and ISAF servicemen. In the end this plays in the hands of Taliban.
Mine warfare has already become a significant element in Taliban’s strategy of breaking off the NATO offensive. Successful land mine attacks by Taliban in several provinces in February inflicted losses on the Western coalition, local police and the servicemen of the Afghan army. Clearly, Taliban will try its best to strengthen these “achievements” by using land mines against NATO forces, which have been deployed to launch an offensive.
Most likely, Taliban will carry out land mine and suicide bomber attacks in Kabul and the provinces along the Pakistani border as well. An analysis of the activity of irreconcilable opposition in 2006 leads to a conclusion that the targets of fierce attack by militants against ISAF forces will be the provinces of Kunar, Khost, Paktia, Zabol, Kandahar, Helmand, Farah and Uruzgan.
It’s expedient to draw attention to the appearance of a new large organization of Taliban under name of Tora Bora recently in Nanganhar, which is headed by Unus Khan, eldest son of the famous mojahideen leader in the past Anvarul Hak Mujahid. This structure could be an asymmetrical response by Taliban to the operation now ISAF is preparing to launch. Tora Bora militants have already launched several attacks on NATO and the government forces near the city of Kot and plan to step up their activity in the future. The strengthening of Taliban forces in Nanganhar province, which is close to Kabul, will undoubtedly prompt NATO to make serious corrections in its offensive strategy in the south.
EPHICENTRE OF FIGHTING
Judging by intensive concentration of forces by both Taliban and NATO on the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, heaviest fighting could be expected in these regions in spring and summer this year.
Currently, Western coalition is concentrating their contingents in Kandahar and Helmand. It is early to say that intensive diplomatic efforts made by Brussels and Washington ahead of the NATO summit in Rome to increase the number of servicemen from the alliance have been successful. Despite the fact that several European countries have made insignificant contribution, American (26 000 servicemen), British (5 600), Canadian (2 500) and Dutch (2 200) forces bear the main burden of fighting in southern Afghanistan. The Germans, 3 000 servicemen, which are being quartered in the North, and Italian force, 1 900 servicemen in the centre of the country will most likely play a subsidiary role and will hardly make a weighty contribution to the forthcoming ISAF offensive.
The pending deployment of 173 US airborne brigade and additional forces from Britain and Poland will promote offensive capability of the ISAF. Canadian Leopard tanks, which were brought into Afghanistan, will also play a serious role in the coming operation. In fact, the Canadian contingent is dislocated near Kandahar.
Evidence that confirms preparations are going on for a NATO offensive is the setting up of a Czech field hospital with 70 medical servants and necessary medicine in Afghanistan early March. Slovakian field engineering battalion was redeployed to Kandahar from Kabul late January. Britain sent two new Harrier GR9A V/STOL fighter jets to Kandahar early February. These planes will be tested under the mountainous conditions of Afghanistan and also will back the NATO forces there. Another two British fighter jets will also fulfill a similar task in Helmand. Moreover, Four Sea King helicopters and a Hercules C-130 transport plane will be deployed in Helmand. The NATO forces are strengthened by Warrior armourd vehicles and multi-barrel missile systems.
In short, the success of the alliance’s Afghan mission depends crucially on the action of NATO groups in Kandahar and Helmand in spring and summer this year. Officials from NATO headquarters and Washington said 2007 would be a year of breakthrough in Afghanistan. The prospects for a breakthrough are directly linked with outcome of the offensives in the provinces in southern Afghanistan.
However, NATO headquarters in Brussels has no hope that coalition forces will achieve a final victory over Taliban in full this spring. On February 10, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance had hoped for defeating the Taliban forces in Afghanistan only in two years. At the same time he emphasized that NATO forces must remain in Afghanistan after 2009.
Reportedly, Taliban is now ready to bring out from 6 000 to 12 000 militants against NATO forces in Kandahar and Helmand. The real figure could be significantly higher than this when taking into account the reinforcement in Pakistan and recruit among local residents. All this shows that currently, the alliance has no numerical superiority of 3:1 for carrying out a successful large-scale offensive in Afghanistan. This is a reason why the Chief US Southern Command General Bantz Craddock said in the middle of February the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan was insufficient to fulfill tasks set before the alliance.