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Taliban Ignite Spring Offensive With Coordinated Attacks

Afghanistan’s Taliban Hit Four Cities, Biggest Spring Attack
A Norwegian soldier, left, aims his rifle toward the scene of attacks in Kabul on April 15, 2012. Photographer: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan and NATO forces killed 36 guerrillas to end a wave of attacks in Kabul and three eastern provinces launched by a Taliban faction based in Pakistan, Afghan officials said today.

Helicopter gunships from the U.S.-led international coalition force flew over the capital during the night and joined Afghan police and troops in the battle against the militants. The fighting ended with the killing of the last attacker near the Afghan parliament early today, more than 17 hours after guerrillas began their rifle and rocket assaults on government buildings and foreign embassies and bases.

While U.S. officials praised the lead role taken by Afghan forces, the series of attacks also underscored the continued ability of the Taliban to disrupt even the neighborhoods adjacent to the palace of President Hamid Karzai, said commentators such as Waheed Mujda, a political analyst at the independent Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Following last year’s offensives by U.S. forces and the annual winter lull in Afghanistan’s war, “the Taliban are sending a message to the U.S. and its allies that they are still powerful,” said Mujda, a former Foreign Ministry official during the Taliban regime in the 1990s.

Eight Afghan soldiers or police were killed and 40 wounded in the battles, while three civilians died, Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi told reporters in Kabul after the fighting ended in the capital, the eastern city of Jalalabad and two other provincial centers.

“One of the terrorists in Jalalabad was captured yesterday, and he has confessed that the attacks were by the Haqqani network,” a faction of the Taliban headquartered in Pakistan’s border district of North Waziristan, Mohammadi said.

Embassies Targeted

Explosions and gunfire erupted sporadically through the night in Kabul as Afghan forces attacked guerrillas who had seized three construction sites of multi-story buildings yesterday. The militants fired rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at government office buildings, including the parliament, plus the U.S., German and British embassies.

The battle near the embassies, and about a kilometer (0.6 mile) from Karzai’s palace, was one of the longest. Agence France-Presse cited an aide to Karzai as saying he had been moved to a safe shelter. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, did not answer calls seeking confirmation.

The complex assault in Afghanistan “has just been a high-profile showing by the Taliban,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. “The good news in all of this is how well the Afghan national security forces have responded,” he said by e-mail.

‘Little Lasting Effect’

While U.S. officials say expanded operations last year by the enlarged American combat force have undercut the Taliban’s strength, analysts said recent data on guerrilla attacks suggest that their spring offensive, following the annual winter lull in fighting, is undiminished this year.

“The data show that the U.S. military surge in 2011 succeeded in reducing the number of security incidents per month, but had little lasting effect,” John McCreary, a retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, wrote in an April 11 newsletter for Washington-based Kforce Government Solutions. “The south and east remain the areas under greatest stress, with the Taliban instigating more than half of the combat actions.”

The top U.S. and ISAF commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, told the House Armed Service Committee March 20 that, “as a result of our recent winter operations, we have seriously degraded the Taliban’s ability to mount a major spring offensive.”

Afghan Government Forces

“We know that the Taliban remain a resilient and determined enemy and that many of them will try to regain their lost ground this spring through assassination, intimidation, high profile attacks and the emplacement of IEDs,” or bombs, Allen said.

“No one is underestimating the severity” of the attacks, Allen said in a statement yesterday. “But the very fact that they chose these types of targets speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign,” Allen said.

Afghan forces “were on the scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated,” Allen said.

The attacks took place in Kabul and the nearby provincial capitals of Jalalabad, to the east, and Pul-e-Alam and Gardez, to the southeast. Those are areas where the Haqqani faction, led by the family of an aged Afghan militant, Jalaluddin Haqqani, is the primary Taliban fighting force.

U.S. Lockdown

Afghan intelligence officers intercepted three Haqqani faction militants carrying guns and two suicide bombs as they entered Kabul to attack the home of one of Karzai’s two vice-presidents, Mohammad Karim Khalili, said Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman of the Afghanistan National Security Directorate.

In Pul-e-Alam, the center of Logar province, Taliban with heavy weapons targeted the governor’s office and the Afghan intelligence agency office, said Din Mohammad Darwish, the provincial government spokesman.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul went into a “lockdown, following our standard operating procedures after hearing explosions and gunfire,” Gavin Sundwall, an embassy spokesman, said in a statement. All its personnel were safe, he said.

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, said in an interview with CNN that the attacks don’t buttress an argument for the U.S. to accelerate the planned withdrawal of its main combat forces, now set for 2014.

While the Afghan forces’ response was “a clear sign of progress,” the attacks also showed “a very dangerous enemy with capabilities,” Crocker said. An early withdrawal would “invite the Taliban and Haqqani” network “back in and set the stage for another 9-11,” he said.

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