The US-led spring offensive, expected to begin in the coming weeks, may be Nato's last chance to shore up Kabul's defences before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options.
US gearing up for one last major Afghan offensive
KABUL // For Taliban militants and US strategists alike, all roads in this impoverished country of mountain passes, arid deserts and nearly impassable goat tracks lead to this ancient capital of 3 million people nestled in a high and narrow valley.
The Taliban made their intentions clear over the weekend, mounting spectacular coordinated attacks that spawned an 18-hour battle with Afghan and Nato forces. And now, the US is gearing up for what may be the last major American-run offensive of the war - a bid to secure the approaches to the city.
While bombings and shootings elsewhere in Afghanistan receive relatively little attention, attacks in the capital alarm the general population, undermine the government's reputation and frighten foreigners into fleeing the country. That's why insurgents on Sunday struck locations that were so fortified they could cause little or no damage, including the diplomatic quarter, the parliament and a Nato base.
"These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.
The US-led spring offensive, expected to begin in the coming weeks, may be Nato's last chance to shore up Kabul's defences before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options. The focus will be regions that control the main access routes, roads and highways into Kabul from the desert south and the mountainous east. These routes are used not only by militants but by traders carrying goods from Pakistan and Iran.
The strategy in eastern Afghanistan involves clearing militants from provinces such as Ghazni, just south of the capital. The pivotal region links Kabul with the Taliban homeland in the south and provinces bordering Pakistan to the east.
Nato, under US command, will also conduct more operations in eastern provinces such as Paktika and Paktia that are considered major infiltration routes to the capital from insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.
Afghan and US officials blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban and has close links with Al Qaeda, for the weekend attacks that left 36 insurgents, eight policemen and three civilians dead in Kabul and three eastern provinces. But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials have not concluded whether the attacks emanated out of Pakistan.
Declining numbers of international troops in the coming months are also forcing coalition forces to focus less on remote and thickly populated places such as eastern Nuristan. They hope to move responsibility for those areas to the Afghan security forces.
Coalition forces last summer made gains in traditional Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, areas they must now hold with fewer troops. By September, as many as 10,000 US Marines are scheduled to leave Helmand and hand over the lead for security to Afghan forces in the former Taliban stronghold.
"It's going to be a very busy summer," General John Allen, the top US and Nato commander, said recently.
After September, the US-led coalition may not have enough troops on the ground for large-scale operations and will increasingly have to depend on the Afghans to take the lead.
Afghan forces are to peak at 352,000 by the end of the year and are expected to take over much of the fighting as the US draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September. US troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.
Estimates of the Taliban fighting force hover around 25,000.