Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/afghanistan-winter.jpgA UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo: Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)
KABUL, Afghanistan — Since Afghans took up arms against the Soviet occupation in 1979, insurgency in war-torn Afghanistan has followed a cyclical pattern. The spring and the summer are for fighting. The winter — which, particularly along the mountainous, porous eastern border with Pakistan, can feature six-foot snowbanks — is for regrouping. Until, perhaps, now.
U.S. military officials are warning that intelligence now indicates that the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan plans to launch major operations this winter. While those officials publicly claim they’re prepared for a winter offensive, it would place U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in unfamiliar territory, with little precedent to guide them. It would likely entail a major escalation of insurgent aggression to cap off what has already been the bloodiest year for the U.S. military in the seven-year war.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpg“This kind of thing raises alarm bells,” said Vikram Singh, who worked on counterinsurgency and South Asia issues at the Pentagon from 2003 to 2007.
Winter in Afghanistan begins in about one month. The weather became notably cooler during a two-week trip to the country that just ended. In eastern Afghanistan, cloud formations highlighted by a non-commissioned officer with the 1-61 Cavalry indicated the coming severity of a winter so cold it can typically freeze metal pipes on military bases.
Most tactics used by insurgency in Afghanistan have remained unchanged for decades. Insurgents use Afghanistan’s meager number of roads to limit their enemies’ mobility. They resupply themselves from safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. And they attack according to the season.
“The more active forms of combat, with the exception of mining roads, were conducted in the spring and summer,” reads the Russian General Staff’s definitive official history of the defeat of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, recently translated by Lester W. Grau of the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. “This can be explained by the fact that the majority of mountain passes used by the caravans are closed in the winter. … Besides that, the heavy snow cover in the mountains during the fall and winter forced the Mujaheddin down into the valleys and spread them out throughout the peaceful population.”
Now, however, Afghan insurgents are expected to rewrite the script. Days ago, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, warned, “The insurgents are attempting to remain in numbers in Afghanistan over the winter.”
During two recent weeks in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. military officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers of various ranks expressed concern that they were going to see what one sergeant called a “hot winter.”
Capt. Christian Patterson, a media-affairs officer based at Bagram Airfield, was direct about the higher threat level. “They will decrease levels of activity from the summer, but will likely be higher than any previous winter during Operation Enduring Freedom,” Patterson told The Washington Independent. “We are also expecting them to attempt spectacular attacks such as suicide bombings or assassination attempts. The militants will continue to use indiscriminate weapons such as IEDs,” referring to the homemade improvised explosive devises that litter the roads.
Why the insurgency might change a time-tested operational pattern remains a subject of debate. Some experts say it could be timed to the U.S. political calendar.
“I expected them to mount a big offensive for the U.S. political transition,” said New York University’s Barnett Rubin, author of “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan.” Rubin analogized the potential Taliban winter attacks to the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet Offensive, a seminal and psychologically traumatic event for the U.S. in Vietnam, despite being militarily unsuccessful. “The Viet Cong did it right before the New Hampshire primary,” noted Rubin.
Others view it as the fruition of an insurgency that has recently gathered surprising intensity. Singh noted the “level of foothold and sanctuary” that the Taliban and its allies have acquired give it the manpower and weaponry necessary to attack when previous generations of Afghan warriors had to go to ground in the wintertime.
“The Taliban and Al Qaeda use these local helpers, seasonal fighters, who they come in and hire,” said Singh, now a fellow at the Center For A New American Security, a Washington think tank. “This would suggest that they’ve thought through what can they give these guys to do over the winter. It won’t hurt if it comes alongside the political transition, but my guess is it would have been hard to do last year.”
Singh added that evidence indicates that “there’s more [military] assets available closer to district and provincial centers and the capitol. It’s already there. The insurgents are able to lay low and not get busted up.”
What appears to be undisputed is the potential for winter Taliban operations to mark a new phase in the war.
“I hate snap assessments,” said a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer with deep experience in the region, “but if this comes to pass, this might at the very least indicate that they think they are strong enough to start putting pressure pressure on the NATO garrisons — or, perhaps, even Kabul.”
Rubin laid out a spectrum of potential objectives for a winter Taliban campaign. The minimum would be “to illustrate that they are a major force in the country, that they are more powerful than ever before, [so] no one can think of defeating them,”Rubin said. A more grandiose objective would be “to capture provincial capitols, set off uprisings and other spectacular events profoundly destabilizing to the Afghan government.”
As to whether the Taliban might be able to succeed in that last objective, Rubin said, “I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Bolstering the plausibility of Rubin’s worst-case scenario is the rise in the Taliban’s political fortunes over the last few months. “The Taliban have consolidated their political control over much of the south and east, and significantly increased their presence in the rest of the country this year,” said M. Chris Mason, a recently-retired U.S. diplomat who spent 2005 on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in an email. “It’s very possible the Taliban will use ‘sleeper’ assets already in Afghanistan to maintain a year-round psychological as well as physical presence in the urban areas in particular.”
Similarly, the retired CIA officer pointed out that a rare exception to the reluctance Afghan insurgents have traditionally felt toward winter operations came in the 1980s, when the mujaheddin felt they could deliver a knockout blow to the Soviets.
“The mujaheddin wintered in the Paghman hills and kept up the pressure on Kabul throughout the winter,” the former CIA officer said. “There are enough of the old boys around — [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar and [Jalaleddin] Haqqani — who remember those days and those tactics. After that winter, the Soviets signed the accords in Geneva in April 1988, and were done with Afghanistan nine months later.”
Schloesser, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, pledged not to take a prospective Taliban winter offensive lying down.
At a Sept. 5 teleconference with Pentagon reporters, Schloesser said he would adopt a two-pronged approach to any insurgent escalation. First, he announced a “very aggressive winter campaign” with the goal of “eliminat[ing] the support areas within our sector to diminish the enemy’s ability to operate next year.”
Complementing the military countermeasures would be what Schloesser called a “development surge” — essentially a jobs program for military-aged men to offer them alternatives to violence, like “clearing ice and snow from roads; doing construction training workshops; road maintenance; distribution of essentials to villages that are basically isolated, such as clothes and food for them, and things like that.”
Whether Schloesser has the resources necessary remains to be seen. The principal reconstruction effort in Khost Province is the construction of a highway spanning the distance from Khost to Gardez. Contracting on the project ended in April and the effort was expected to last 20 months — far outlasting the coming winter. Neighboring provinces have even paltrier public-works opportunities.
Additionally, Schloesser pointedly said that he was unsatisfied with the number of troops at his command. “It’s a slow win, I guess, is probably what we’re accomplishing right on over here,” he said, assessing the U.S.’s fortunes in the war during his teleconference. “It’s not the way that I think the Afghans, the international community and the American people would like to see us conduct this war. It will take longer the way we are doing it right now — as far as the level of resources that we have. I’d like to speed that up.”
Last week, the Pentagon announced that an additional Army brigade and Marine battalion — about 5,700 troops — will deploy to Afghanistan before the new year. The Washington Independent reported that the Army brigade will most likely operate in the area between Logar and Wardak provinces.
The effect of a potential Taliban winter push is hard to gauge in advance. “But it seems to me that this would be the kind of move that would throw us off balance a little bit,” Singh said. “If it’s true that they’re able to do something that they have not been able to do for seven years — keep us occupied with attacks and harassment through the winter — I think it will have a disproportionate psychological impact on the coalition.”
Rubin of New York University pointed out, “What the Viet Cong did in 1968 was extremely frustrating for the U.S. military — because it defeated [the Viet Cong] but still lost the war.”