Is a spring offensive in Afghanistan really likely?

May 4, 2008

(Luke Baker is with the U.S. army in eastern Afghanistan) 

January file photo of U.S. Black Hawk in Afghanistan/Ahmad MasoodThe snows have largely melted in the Hindu Kush and the high trails over the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again passable. What’s more, Tehrik-e-Taliban’s leader, Baitullah Mehsud, looks like he may secure a peace deal with Pakistan’s new leadership, including the possibility of Pakistan’s security forces backing off from attacking his hideouts in South Waziristan.

To many observers, those two developments lead to a conclusion: any spring offensive by the Taliban against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan could be that much more powerful this year, with Mehsud throwing his tactical weight behind the offensive without fear of being squeezed by Pakistan’s forces from behind.
 
U.S. soldier searches Afghan man for weapons/Goran TomasevicThe argument has a fair amount of logic on its side, but how likely is the whole scenario really?

On the Afghanistan side of the border, U.S. commanders seem unconvinced, even if they are not dismissing the possibility of some sort of offensive in the coming months. First, they say many of the traditional infiltration routes over the mountains have now been closed off or are under watch by special forces. Even if much of the border is likely to remain passable — there’s no way 16,000 or so U.S. troops could seal every mountainous nook and cranny along hundreds of miles of frontier — they are not expecting the overall rate of infiltration to change substantially from last year.

Secondly, rather than relations between U.S. forces and Pakistani troops breaking down in the wake of President Pervez Musharraf’s sidelining and the murmurs of a peace deal with Mehsud, they say cooperation remains strong. Senior U.S. officers meet once a month, face-to-face for what they call “border flag” meetings with senior Pakistani officers, sharing intelligence and building relationships. Junior officers have even more contact — they have exchanged mobile phone numbers with the other side and sometimes communicate by radio on a daily basis.

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan/Goran Tomasevic“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect all along the border, but generally relations are pretty good. Uneven but good,” one senior U.S. officer said this week to describe the ties.

On occasion U.S. forces need to seek and have received permission to cross into Pakistan’s territory to pursue militants, he said. American unmanned spy planes are not allowed to pass into Pakistan’s air space, but otherwise, relations seem to be sound.

Perhaps most crucially, U.S. officers say they have seen no signs yet of Pakistani troops pulling back from the border area — a demand Mehsud has made as part of any peace deal.

Those three factors alone may not rule out any spring offensive — certainly the Taliban remains strong across southern Afghanistan and shows no signs of weakening — but they hint that this year may not see the big spring offensive some have suggested.

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