Originally Published 2011-07-02 00:00:00 Published on Jul 02, 2011
Increased insurgent violence in Afghanistan since the start of the Taliban's 'spring offensive' in May has further deteriorated the country's state of security.
Taliban's piercing 'Spring Offensive' - dominance or desperation?
Increased insurgent violence in Afghanistan since the start of the Taliban's 'spring offensive' in May has further deteriorated the country's state of security. Recurring suicide bombings, assassinations, and ambushes inside major cities like Kabul and Kandahar question International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claims of reversing the conflict's momentum. In such a precarious condition, US President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw 10,000 soldiers this year, and another 23,000 troops in 2012 does not inspire optimism. Yet, past insurgencies tell us that the Taliban may be farther from outright victory than otherwise suggested by the latest spike in violence. As witnessed in similar conflicts elsewhere, rebels often resort to 'spectacular violence' when faced with sustained losses in the battlefield. In this context, what precisely is the significance of the much talked about spring offensive?

In one of the most audacious attacks this year, Haqqani-network militants stormed the heavily-guarded Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and killed 12 people on June 29. The terrorists easily suppressed Afghan guards and were finally repulsed after the arrival of NATO Special Forces on the scene. In another major assault, a suicide bomber disguised himself as a policeman and struck the Governor's compound in Takhar province, killing a senior police official, besides severely injuring Maj Gen Markus Kneip, commander of NATO forces in northern Afghanistan. The deceased, Gen Mohammad Daoud Daoud, headed police forces in nine of the northern provinces. Daoud was a famous rebel leader during the anti-Soviet resistance and was a close aide of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander of the former Northern Alliance.

Thirtyfive people, mainly infants and women, were killed when a suicide bomber rammed his car into a hospital in the Logar province on June 25. Similarly, two blasts killed five and injured 30 in the capital of the western province of Heart on May 30. The first bomb was planted in the city centre, while the second attack, a suicide bombing, targeted the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) located in the vicinity of the hitherto peaceful city.

Eight US troops were killed in a roadside bomb blast in Shorabak district of Kandahar province during a routine foot patrol, making it one of the deadliest attacks on foreign troops in recent past. According to Gen Abdul Raziq, provincial chief of the Afghan border police, 'Two months ago, we cleared this area of terrorists, but still they are active here.'
These raids point at some disturbing trends that do not generate optimism towards the US plan of 'transition'-handing over security tasks to Afghan forces and begin the process of withdrawal in July this year. First, the attack in Kandahar shows Taliban's resilience in regaining ground that it had lost last year. The current ISAF strategy, known as the 'ink blot' model, assumes that regions 'cleared' of insurgents and 'held' by security forces will remain peaceful enough to enable government to emerge from the bottom. The insurgency's renewed buoyancy in areas sanitised by ISAF challenges the 'clear-hold-build' strategy by demonstrating that areas cleared in 2010 have once again become contested.

Second, greater attacks in previously peaceful regions challenge ISAF claims that the insurgency is on the defensive. Kabul has been relatively peaceful since 2010, and is amongst the seven regions where international troops will transition security tasks to Afghan forces this month. Takhar served as a base for the Northern Alliance after it lost Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 and, till recently, was favourably disposed towards the Hamid Karzai government. A strong undercurrent of resentment, informed by civilian casualties in military raids and poor governance, came to the surface in May when thousands of protestors stormed the police headquarters. Fierce riots that followed led to 12 deaths. Similarly, Herat, a stronghold of the anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan, was believed to be insulated from the turmoil that has devastated the south-eastern provinces by virtue of its historic links and economic integration with neighbouring Iran.

Lastly, Taliban's success at repeatedly infiltrating Afghan security forces points towards discontent among the ranks against foreign 'occupation', and also reveals inadequacies in capacity-building of the security forces. Earlier in May, an Afghan National Army soldier supplied a suicide bomber with military uniform and identity proof, which enabled him to detonate his bomb inside the high-security national military hospital in Kabul. Similarly, in April, Kandahar's much admired police chief was assassinated inside his headquarters by an officer who had recently joined the force.  

In such an unstable state, visual evidence makes prospects of successful transition appear dismal. However, the ability of insurgents to penetrate high-security zones and attack foot patrols is one, but not the most decisive indicator of the organisation's strength. Insurgencies derive their potency by creating proto-states and controlling the population's political behaviour, and by making the costs of occupation greater than its utility to the incumbent's international patrons.

Since 2010, as a result of the troop surge, larger military presence in provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand, the Taliban's nerve-centre, has made it difficult for the insurgency to operate with impunity and run parallel 'shadow governments' from secure bases. The geographical spread of the Taliban explained earlier is simply not matched by a corresponding increase in the degree of control exercised by the group. Isolated bombings, therefore, may well represent desperate attempts by the militants to relieve pressure in their former strongholds.

A useful analogy often cited by Indian police officers fighting the Naxal insurgency is that of an octopus surrounded by predators. When one of its tentacles is threatened, it targets its pursuers through other tentacles in order to evade capture. In the case of the Taliban, tribal and regional militias, and other insurgent groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islami constitute the organisation's tentacles. These groups cooperate with the Taliban shura, and might be making deliberate forays into previously safe regions in order to divert ISAF's year long attention to the southern provinces.

In conclusion, while attacks inside military hospitals and police headquarters accentuate problems of governance and security, they do equate with the creation of parallel states, or 'emirates'- no-go areas where government rule ceases to exist. 

Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti is Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a public policy think-tank based in New Delhi

Sources: Reuters, May 26, 2011; CNN, June 25, 28, 2011; Associated Press, Map 26, 2011; The Guardian, May 28, 2011; The New York Times, May 28, 2011; BBC News, May 30

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.