Afghan National Army (ANA) female officers take part in a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) in Kabul, October 8, 2013. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
by Thom Shanker
New York Times
October 22, 2013
BRUSSELS — A senior American military officer warned Tuesday that insurgent groups are expected to carry out an unusually aggressive campaign of violence in Afghanistan this winter, angling to create maximal disruption ahead of next year’s presidential elections and as Western forces continue to withdraw.
Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and heavy snowfall have historically resulted in a summer fighting season followed by a winter lull, with the Taliban using the cold-weather months to rest, retrain and try to further their agenda by quietly spreading political influence at the village level.
This winter, militant groups are expected to continue their traditional influence campaign. But in an interview on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers here, the senior American officer said that intelligence reviews and Afghan reports painted a picture of a concerted insurgent effort to disrupt the elections, planned for April 2014.
“We’re not in the ‘nonfighting season’ now,” said the official, speaking anonymously under ground rules usually in place at such NATO meetings. “We are actually transitioning to a winter campaign.”
The insurgent winter campaign is expected to include “attempts at high-profile attacks, attempts at targeted killings of political officials, election officials and candidates” rather than traditional battlefield engagements, the military official said.
A transparent and inclusive vote in April is viewed as central to the credibility of the Kabul government. American officials in particular had urged the Afghan government not to push the vote into summer, cautioning that any delay might make it easier for insurgents to disrupt the vote.
But the assessment shared Tuesday by the senior American officer was the first indication that the Taliban are also viewing the vote as a critical strategic point, to the degree that they would change their usual operations to focus on it.
At the same time, relations between the Afghan government and the United States are at a particularly delicate stage. A grand council, or loya jirga, of Afghan elders and powerful officials is expected to meet in coming weeks to recommend whether to accept a bilateral security agreement with the United States. If the agreement is then approved by Parliament, it will allow thousands of troops to remain after the NATO combat mission officially ends in December 2014.
There are around 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but that level will drop to 34,000 by February under orders from President Obama. As part of a commitment to helping the Afghans secure the elections, the number of American troops would then hold steady at the 34,000 level and not drop further until next July, according to the senior official.
NATO has endorsed an enduring force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops to advise, assist and train Afghan forces. It is expected that about two thirds of those troops would be American. But it is thought that no coalition nations would extend the mission without the United States remaining under a new security agreement with the Afghans.
At the crux of the debate are two American demands: to maintain legal jurisdiction over American troops, and to be able to continue direct counterterrorism missions on Afghan soil.
American officials said counterterrorism missions would be coordinated with and even carried out in partnership with Afghan forces. But there has been no wavering on American insistence on legal jurisdiction, which would shield United States troops against Afghan prosecution.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met in Brussels on Tuesday with the Afghan defense minister, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi. Mr. Mohammadi expressed confidence that the bilateral security agreement would be approved, American officials said.
But in the meeting, Mr. Hagel was firm that American jurisdiction over its forces “is a must” for the agreement, according to a senior Pentagon official.