U.S. warns Taliban are planning spring offensive
Published Tuesday, January 16, 2007 7:09AM EST
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - There are growing warnings among U.S. military ranks that Kandahar, the "holy grail" for Taliban militants, will once again be the central objective of an anticipated spring offensive.
The high sign is coming not only from American commanders on the ground, but senior officials with newly appointed U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gate, who is expected to travel to Afghanistan in the coming days.
The senior Canadian commander in Afghanistan said he doesn't believe the province of Kandahar, nor the city itself, would bear the brunt of a spring offensive if one materializes, adding he has confidence his U.S. allies will not yield any ground.
"Clearly if they're talking publicly about it, there's no doubt in my mind that they would have plans to deal with it," said Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Canadian troops were in the thick of bloody fighting throughout much of last year as Taliban insurgents mounted their most determined campaign since the 2001 overthrow of their government, to retake the country's second largest city.
In published reports last week, U.S. army Brig.-Gen. Anthony Tata was quoted as saying the Taliban is expected to unleash a campaign in eastern Afghanistan to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar. The ultimate objective would be to seize Kandahar, where the hardline Islamic movement was founded.
The warning was repeated last weekend by a senior official travelling with Gates when he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.
"There's no doubt the Taliban understand operational-level tactics," said Grant.
"It would be a tremendous coup for them if they were able to cut the Kandahar-Kabul highway, but I have tremendous faith in the Americans operating in (Regional Command) East that they would not allow that to happen."
Tata, who is deputy commander of the American 10th Mountain Division, and U.S. marine commandant Gen. James Conway say a marine combat brigade should be sent to eastern Afghanistan to reinforce the area along the border with Pakistan. U.S. media reports over the weekend also suggest Britain is considering adding to the 5,600 troops it already has the country, most of whom are stationed in the neighbouring province of Helmand.
Underscoring the growing concern, Gates met Monday in Brussels with the secretary general of NATO to talk about the Alliance's 30,000 troops who are fighting in the troubled country. Last fall, NATO commanders also called for an additional combat brigade, a request that was met with a half-hearted response by members.
Grant said he didn't want to comment on the "tactical situation outside" of his operational area, but indicated he's skeptical insurgents would be able to mount a major conventional military operation.
"I would question the Taliban's ability to launch to an offensive that would allow them to cut and hold that road for any length of time," he said.
Last fall, Canadian troops led a major offensive to break the back of militant strength in arid farmland west of Kandahar. The success of Operation Medusa and the slow return to normal life for residents of the Panjwaii district adds to Grant's cautious optimism that the coming months will not be as bloody as the last year.
"We've dealt some severe blows to the senior leadership of the Taliban in this province, so from that standpoint it will take them some time to recuperate," he said.
The buoyancy is further supported by the relative calm that has washed over the troubled province, which comes as Canadian troops consolidate their gains of last fall with another operation - Falcon's Summit - meant to win over soft Taliban supporters in rural areas west of Kandahar.
In a recent background briefing, a senior officer revealed that military planners have set themselves a goal of declaring the Canadian zone of influence in Kandahar and the surrounding area "secure" by July of this year. Secure is defined as local "residents not being afraid" to go about their business.
Grant didn't say whether he believed the objective could be met and cautioned: "We haven't seen the end of the Taliban in this province."
Kandahar is still the heartland for the extremist movement, he said.
"This is where it all started. There is no doubt the last Taliban fighting in Afghanistan will be fighting in Kandahar province."