This weekend, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief Syed Saleem Shahzad published what's become an annual lookahead to the coming fighting season, from the Taliban's perspective.
In previous years this Spring Offensive primer has been full of bombastic proclamations of the Taliban's imminent overthrow of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Not so this year.
"Instead of taking on foreign forces in direct battle in the traditional hot spots, the Taliban plan to open new fronts as they are aware they cannot win head-on against the might of the US-led war machine." wrote Shahzad.
"... the Taliban, according to Asia Times Online contacts, will open new fronts in Khyber Agency in Pakistan and Nangarhar province in east Afghanistan and its capital Jalalabad," he said.
"... the historic belt starting from Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province and running through Khyber Agency to Nangarhar is NATO's life line - 80% of its supplies pass through it."
Almost as if to confirm Shahzad's sources, bomb blasts Sunday destroyed at least 35 oil tankers and damaged 25 more at a Pakistani border crossing where they were waiting for clearance to enter Afghanistan.
The tankers were sitting in two parking lots in the tribal town of Landi Kotal, the highest point on the Khyber Pass. Six bomb blasts killed two people, injured 50 and set more than 60 tankers on fire. Each tanker oil tanker carried around 45,000 litres of fuel.
Over the past year, three oil tankers have been destroyed or damaged every month in Taliban attacks, according to news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
The Asia Times sources may also give some insight into recent announcements by coalition forces in Aghanistan--specifically the expected deployment of 1000 French troops.
Canada has been begging for 1000 soldiers from a fellow NATO country to bolster their success in Kandahar province. France, coincidentally, has announced it will send 1000 troops to Afghanistan, but to the east, not the south. It's been assumed they will replace 1000 American soldiers who would supplement the Canadians in Kandahar. But there may be another reason for the French deployment
Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote on Asia Times Online:
"At the same time, the "war on terror" extends beyond US-British dominance. Although there are several disagreements at the operation level within NATO in Afghanistan, some partners, such as France, cognizant of the revival of the enemy's strength, have greatly enhanced their input into intelligence resources.
French intelligence is directly involved in fresh moves to track the most wanted targets, including Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yaldeshiv, besides bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
New funds have been allocated for clandestine operations by French intelligence in Pakistan's North and South Waziristan regions, as well as in Balochistan province, to track high-profile targets with the aim of assassinating them. This is being done in coordination with NATO forces in Afghanistan.
According to Asia Times Online investigations, French intelligence has infiltrated a network of donors who had been arranging money for the Iraqi resistance and the Taliban."
So, the French have a new agenda in Afghanistan which may explain why they want their troops in the east.
Help On The Way
But if this frees up American soldiers to help out in southern Afghanistan, then Canadian forces could be getting some much desired breathing space. Canada has 2500 troops in Kandahar, with about 1700 in the battle group that does the fighting. We know 3200 U.S. marines are moving into Kandahar this spring and, with possibly another 1000 from the east, we can see how military manpower in Kandahar will more than double.
The added troop strength won't all be there to help Canada's Cinderella Army---1000 marines are coming to handle training of Afghan police and soldiers and a marine air-ground task force of 2200 is designated to help blunt any Taliban spring offensive, probably primarily in Helmand province. But they will be stationed at Kandahar airfield, and available if needed.
The shuffling of the military cards is already underway on both sides of the battle. Some of it was noticeable in the past week's activity.
In Zabul province in the southeast, there was a major police search for a Taliban leader. When 40 Afghan police with their U.S. mentors entered a village, they were attacked by Taliban fighters. The Afghan police are still the weak link of the country's security forces, and a coordinated operation of this size is a sign of the progress being made. After a 40 minutes gunbattle the Taliban suspects tried to make a run for it on motorcycles. Three were killed and three captured.
Northern Afghanistan, where Germany leads NATO security operations, was the target of two significant attacks, perhaps foreshadowing what the Germans, who have had it extremely easy going so far, can expect in the coming months.
On Saturday, the district chief of Khanaqa district of northern Jowzjan province was stabbed to death. And four people were wounded when a bomb exploded in the city of Mazar-I-Sharif which was packed with people celebrating New Year.
And an AP story about the opening of a new girls school contained this surprising information:
"However, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Deh Hassan, German army commanders in the city of Kunduz say their previously calm sector has seen a surge in attacks since last summer, forcing Berlin to send in paratroopers to reinforce the mission.
"There's hardly any week, any day, when there is not a rocket attack," says Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserich."
Taliban insurgents continued their campaign of suicide bombing.
In Kandahar, a suicide bomber on a bicycle attacked a crowd gathered around a shrine. He killed two policemen.
And in Khost province, intelligence agents arrested three men who were driving around looking for somewhere to detonate a car bomb. The suicide bomber was to be a 14-year-old boy who had been brought in from Pakistan.
Throughout Afghanistan, however, 14 year olds who hadn't been brainwashed by Islamic fanatics were attending school. Afghanistan's Education Minister says nearly 7 million children, a record number, are enrolled in the new school year, a third of them girls.
Last year Taliban terrorists killed 220 students and teachers, mostly in the south.
While insurgent instability is keeping 300,000 children out of school in the southern provinces, enrollment in the north and east has grown by 500,000 this year.
Education is so valued in a country where 70 percent of adults are illiterate that villages are setting up "protection councils" to drive off Taliban insurgents who threaten the schools.
Two mid-level Taliban commanders interviewed in Helmand province by The Daily Telegraph acknowledged they have lost the Education War and that it has split the insurgency.
"If we are too harsh to the community then we find it is really hard for us to survive," admitted the older commander. He said that more pragmatic Taliban figures were pushing for schools to be opened and for reconstruction work. But he said such efforts met resistance from the increasingly extreme fighters moving into Helmand. (Younger leadership for Taliban in Afghanistan, Daily Telegraph, Feb. 24,2008).
The story cited "western military officials" who told the newspaper privately that targeted bombings or assassinations by American and British special forces last year killed about 200 medium and high-level Taliban commanders. Another 100 were captured. The attrition of leadership has noticeably disrupted Taliban operations. Attacks in recent month have been less co-ordinated, the military sources said. And both Taliban commanders said the insurgency was increasingly recruiting from outside Helmand with the new leaders become younger and more fanatic.
But, if anything, the pressure on the Taliban, in the west at least, is only increasing.
British special forces have begun conducting covert operations against drug smugglers. In conjunction with an elite Afghan counter-narcotics police unit, they are launching raids against individuals involved in the opium trade. The raids will remove drug profits the Taliban uses to pay fighters and buy arms. And drug smugglers will begin to reassess their alliance with the Taliban which now brings unwanted attention from professional soldiers.
Western officials estimate that the Taliban earned about $50 million last year through payoffs from drug smugglers, taxing opium farmers, controlling smuggling routes, and supplying chemicals used to refine opium into heroin.