Exclusive: Major Taliban attacks expected in Afghanistan

KABUL Fri Apr 29, 2011 1:30pm EDT

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KABUL (Reuters) - The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan is expecting Taliban-led insurgents to launch a series of major attacks across the country over the next week, senior military officials said on Friday.

They said recent intelligence reporting indicated that the attacks planned by the Taliban, supported by the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and other insurgents, would include suicide bombings.

Two senior coalition commanders said they anticipated the campaign of increased violence would last about a week.

"The enemy can generate indiscriminate violence but he can't succeed," one of the coalition commanders told Reuters. "We're expecting a big spike in violence over the next week."

Washington and commanders of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have trumpeted successes against a growing insurgency since 30,000 extra U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan last year.

In Washington, the Pentagon said the troop "surge" had dealt a blow to the Taliban-led insurgency but fighting had risen since last fall.

Senior commanders have long anticipated a spike in violence with the arrival of the spring and summer "fighting season," although the usual winter lull was not seen as U.S-led forces pressed their attack against insurgents, particularly in the Taliban's southern heartland.

Violence across Afghanistan hit record levels in 2010, with civilian and military casualties the worst since U.S-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001.

The Pentagon said in a biannual report that an overall increase in violence was due in part to increased targeting of safe insurgent safe havens and unseasonably mild winter weather.

MAJOR SECURITY CHANGES

Military commanders interviewed by Reuters were not sure why May 1 had been chosen by the Taliban to launch their renewed offensive.

The anticipated Taliban campaign would not change the coalition's counterinsurgency strategy put in place last year by U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of the 150,000 U.S. and ISAF troops in Afghanistan, they said.

U.S. officials said this week that Petraeus would return to Washington by September to take over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In a major security shake-up, diplomatic heavyweight Ryan Crocker will replace Karl Eikenberry as Washington's ambassador in Afghanistan.

Western ambassadors in Kabul have described the military and diplomatic reshuffle as a shift of emphasis away from the military "surge" that began last year toward a political solution as NATO-led forces prepare to withdraw.

Under a program agreed at a NATO summit last year, ISAF will begin handing security responsibility to Afghan forces in several areas from July. The program will end with the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

A senior U.S. defense official in Washington said fighting was expected to rise and could peak in the next 12 months. But that would not prevent the United States from going ahead with the scheduled troop drawdown from July.

He said the Taliban were still able to mount major attacks but posed less of a strategic threat than in the past.

"Again, that doesn't mean that day-to-day there aren't big challenges," the U.S. defense official said.

TRANSITION PROCESS

NATO-led military commanders briefed Afghan government officials and Western diplomats about the expected spike in violence over the past few days.

"These incidents can't derail the transition process but, at the same time, it shows the fragility of the situation," one senior Kabul-based Western diplomat told Reuters.

Another NATO military commander said they expected the Taliban to try and regain ground lost to ISAF and Afghan forces since the extra U.S. troops were sent in.

"We're tracking credible intelligence that senior Taliban leaders, backed by the Haqqani network, plan to conduct attacks throughout Afghanistan from the end of April," he said. "They're attempting to regain momentum after the progress by the coalition over the last year."

Both senior coalition commanders in Kabul said the Taliban offensive would likely include ambushes, suicide bombings and attacks against high-profile targets in the capital, Kabul, and other major cities including Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south, in the north and in Herat in the west.

The attacks, they said, would most likely be concentrated in the east, near Afghanistan's long and often-porous border with Pakistan, where Taliban fighters have long sheltered in safe havens and from where they often launch attacks.

"It's intended to cast doubt on the progress of the coalition over the past year," one of the commanders said. "Their intent is nationwide."

(Reporting by Paul Tait; Editing by Rob Taylor and Myra MacDonald)

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