Taliban Face Complex Battlefield as Foreign Troops Withdraw

While the Afghan Taliban are promising a “monumental” offensive, they must cope with the hard fact that many of their targets may be local Afghans. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau report.

05.03.13 8:45 AM ET

In what has become an annual rite, the Afghan Taliban announced on its website, Voice of Jihad, this past weekend that it was kicking off this year’s “monumental spring” offensive. This time it boasted that the threatened “special military” operations outlined in the communiqué would feature more “insider attackers” by Taliban infiltrators inside Western bases, and stepped up “collective martyrdom operations,” or coordinated suicide attacks, against coalition military facilities and “diplomatic centers” in an effort to “inflict heavy casualties on the foreign aggressors.”

While the website’s rhetoric and the threats are menacing enough, at least some Taliban commanders and intelligence officers in the field say they are less than optimistic about the chances for success of this spring offensive that the insurgents have dubbed “Khalid bin Waleed” after a seventh-century Islamic general and companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The big difference this year is that as U.S. and coalition forces withdraw—the bulk of the remaining 100,000 coalition troops will be gone by the end of this year—the insurgents are facing a fight in the countryside against largely local people, not against the more emotionally resonant target of foreigners.

As a result, even drawing up the planning for this year’s so-called offensive was more difficult and complex than in the past, says a senior Taliban intelligence officer who declines to be named for security reasons. “The military strategy for this year has been more difficult to make than in the past,” says the intelligence officer. “Then we had simple and clear enemies: the U.S., NATO, and the Kabul regime forces. Now we have to worry about another force at the village level: local police militias and villagers who have risen up against us.” He was referring to Afghan Local Police (ALP) units that have been organized, trained, and financed by U.S. Special Operations troops, and to the “popular” uprisings by villagers against abusive Taliban commanders that have taken place this past year in several southern provinces. A local insurgent commander in southern Zabul province agrees. “This year there was not as much preparation for jihad as there has been in the past,” says the commander, Mullah Wali Muhammad. “We are facing new challenges.”

Those challenges largely involve local villagers whose support was one of the insurgency’s strengths.  Now in order to regain control of their traditional strongholds in countryside that they lost over the past three years to American “surge” troops, the insurgents will first have to face these lightly armed but determined local forces. “The Taliban are taking very seriously the police militias and the uprising of local people in many areas and will cruelly try to dismantle both,” says the intelligence officer. He says this year’s plan is for suicide bombers to lead those attacks in the villages. “We have a good number of bombers who will teach a lesson to the rebelling villages and to the ALP,” the intelligence officer says.

This fight won’t be easy. “This year is confusing,” admits Muhammad, the commander. “We are not just fighting U.S., NATO, and Kabul’s forces. Locals will be involved and I don’t feel easy or enjoy killing local Afghans.”

“Things are really mixed up,” he adds. “Our fighters are not clear about who to kill and who not to kill.” Adding to the complexity is that the insurgency is facing a manpower shortage of Afghan fighters in many areas. As a result more Pakistani tribals from Pakistan’s tribal agencies along the border and even Pakistani militants from the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, are being recruited and sent to Afghanistan to fight this year. “Tribals and Punjabis are coming in higher numbers than ever this year,” Muhammad says. He complains that these forces do not seem to be under the Taliban’s command. “Before these Pakistanis were scattered among our Afghan fighters,” says Muhammad. “Now they are coming in organized groups with their own command.” “They came here for jihad with their blood boiling and they want to kill,” the commander adds.

The intelligence officer says the Taliban now have two types of suicide bombers: local Afghans and Pakistanis. As it is easier for the Afghans to operate under the radar in Afghan cities like Kabul, he says most of the suicide bombers who are being deployed in the countryside to hit the Afghan Local Police units and rebellious villagers are Pakistanis under the command of an aggressive Punjabi named Bilal Bhai, 39, an explosives expert who was captured in 2002 with an Al Qaeda unit in Afghanistan, sent to Guantánamo, and then released in 2007. The intelligence officer worries that a phalanx of suicide bombers unleashed against local village militias and the ALP will only further alienate villagers from the insurgency and make life even more difficult for the Taliban. “I’m afraid our Taliban may be running more than fighting this year, if locals turn against us and work as spies for the U.S. and Karzai,” the intelligence officer says.

That is not the outcome of the spring offensive that the Taliban is hoping for.