KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past week, the Taliban in Afghanistan have bared their teeth and launched a series of attacks designed to show that their threat of a summer offensive is much more than empty words.
The headline-grabbing assaults on two of NATO’s most heavily fortified bases, Bagram and Kandahar, cost the Taliban dearly, while leaving the international military forces relatively unscathed.
But the main aim of the daring missions, say analysts here, was to bolster the morale of the Taliban’s own fighters, while attempting to convince their foe that they were far from ready to give up.
“The Taliban are trying to show that all this talk about their being on their last legs is exaggerated,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, an author and researcher who has been living in Kandahar for more than two years. “They want to demonstrate that they still have the morale to mount a suicidal mission.”
A handful of Taliban fighters lobbed rockets at Kandahar air field on May 22, following up with a ground assault on the outer perimeter. The rockets caused some damage to the popular “boardwalk” that houses fast-food restaurants and coffee shops and borders a recreational area where soldiers can blow off steam.
Several soldiers and civilian contractors were injured when a rocket landed near the Green Bean coffee shop, but no one was killed, and all the injured are in stable condition, according to reports released by Regional Command South.
At least 10 of the attackers were killed, according to multiple reports. The media office for the International Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command refused to confirm the exact number, saying that “body count is no measure of failure or success.”
But when no more than two dozen insurgents go up against thousands of heavily armed and well-trained soldiers, numbers do matter.
“There is no way for the Taliban to do a frontal attack and survive,” said van Linschoten. “They cannot penetrate the outer walls. It’s just not going to happen.”
The Kandahar attack echoed a similar one on Bagram air base, near Kabul, on May 19, in which the final tally was 16 insurgents killed and five captured, according to statements issued by Regional Command East. One American contractor was killed and nine soldiers were injured in the attack.
The death toll was much higher on May 18, when the Taliban struck near the old royal palace on Darulaman Road, an area that is also home to a U.S. Counter-Insurgency Training Center and an Afghan Army base. The target of the attack was a U.S. military convoy, but civilian vehicles, including a bus, were also hit. In total, six military personnel were killed as well as 12 Afghan civilians. An additional 47 civilians were injured.
That incident received much less attention, however, than the two brazen assaults on NATO bases.
“[Improvised Explosive Devices] are just so common now,” said van Linschoten. “The Taliban obviously want to get written about.”
In early May, the Taliban leadership promised to counter the U.S. troop surge and accompanying military offensives with their own campaign, dubbed Al Fateh, or victory.
The past week was a taste of what is to come, according to political analyst and parliamentary candidate Janan Mosazai.
“These attacks are a clear signal that the Taliban is very much alive, and more resurgent than in the past few years,” he said. “It also indicates that the American plan for the Kandahar operation is no magic bullet.”
The U.S. forces have devoted a great deal of publicity to Operation Omid, the proposed offensive to clear the Taliban out of Kandahar, the movement’s spiritual birthplace and symbolic center. Kandahar has been touted as the make-or-break operation of the war, giving the U.S. military very little wiggle room if things should go wrong.
But the Taliban’s new boldness may upset the U.S.’s carefully designed public relations campaign on Kandahar, said Mosazai.
“The United States military has engaged in a significant propaganda effort around Kandahar, much like they did in Marjah,” he said, referring to Operation Moshtarak, the combined offensive in Helmand province that was called “the decisive battle” of the war that would “break the back” of the Taliban.”
Instead, Marjah, a small area in Helmand famed for poppy and insurgency, is now as chaotic as ever.
“The people in Marjah are worse off now than they were before, although the operation was seen as a success,” said Mosazai.
Kandahar, a city of close to 1 million people, will be much more in the public eye than Marjah, and the Taliban, with their new boldness, seem determined to deny the international forces a public perception of victory.
“The Taliban are trying to show that Kandahar will not be as uncontested as the U.S. military might think,” said van Linschoten.
The shift in Taliban tactics is seen in Afghanistan as a psychological assault on the international forces, as well as a shot in the arm for their own supporters.
“The Taliban want to show through these attacks that they are an organized, ambitious and unbeatable force,” said Noorulhaq Ulumi, a parliamentarian from Kandahar and a former military commander. “They want to demonstrate that the Taliban can launch consecutive attacks in different parts of the country and against the most important military bases of the foreign forces.”
Even though the Taliban have almost no chance of significant success in these assaults, they can use them to shore up their image among a population disillusioned by the failure of the central government and weary of foreign occupation.
“The Taliban know how weak and unpopular the Karzai government is, which is why they are getting more and more brazen,” said Ulumi. “The Taliban have never asked for reconciliation, but both the Afghan government and the Americans have been talking about it continuously. So the Taliban think they are stronger than the government and the foreign forces.”
“Reconciliation” is shorthand for peace negotiations with top Taliban leaders, something that President Hamid Karzai has been eager to pursue. He has called a National Consultative Peace Jirga to discuss ways of bringing the Taliban leadership into the government.
The Jirga, which has now been twice postponed, is set to take place in Kabul on June 2. But, given the Taliban’s recent activities, few hold out any great hope that peace is in the air.
“The Taliban have never wanted peace, and now that they are in a better position they have become bolder and are seeking fundamental changes to the country’s political system,” said political analyst and parliamentarian Mohammad Sarwar Jawadi. “ The latest attacks are a frank response to Karzai’s and America’s reconciliation demands.”
The United States has repeatedly said that it supports reconciliation, provided the Taliban lay down their arms, break off ties with Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan Constitution.
The Taliban seem to be replying, in their own manner, that they also have preconditions for talks — the immediate and total withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, a demand they have constantly reiterated.
But the escalation of force is unlikely to bring benefits to either side, say observers.
“There is no military solution to Afghanistan’s problems,” said Mosazai. “The U.S. troop surge, the new operations, have only made things worse for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban now are showing that they have a very large pool of potential recruits. Meanwhile, the prospect of a peaceful, stable Afghanistan is growing ever more distant.”
Jamaluddin Temori, a journalist in Kabul, contributed to this report.