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November 24, 2008

This Ain't no Winter Wonderland
Posted by Patrick Barry

There has been a lot of chatter over the past few months about whether NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan will face a Taliban-led 'winter offensive' this year.  Since the beginning of the war, it has generally been the case that attacks have ebbed in the winter time, resulting from miserable conditions that make personnel movement and large-scale operations prohibitive.  This winter figures to be a different story however, as many informed sources - General McKiernan chief amongst them - have speculated that the Taliban have no intention of letting up and that Afghanistan will likely face unprecedented violence.  The LA Times had a pretty good story on the subject yesterday:

In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

It's interesting that both the Taliban and NATO-ISAF should point to winter clashing as evidence of their resolve in taking the fight to the opposition.  To me, this isn't the whole story.  What the contention over this issue misses is that for reasons having to do with the region's terrain and weather, as well as Afghanistan's linkages w\ insurgent havens in northwest Pakistan, if there is any kind of winter offensive, its existence will be a testament to the Taliban's rebuilt strength and capacity. 

Afghanistan's weather and topography are huge factors when it comes to the fighting there.  This is especially true during the winter, when snowfall closes the passes of the Safed Koh mountain range, preventing insurgents in neighboring Pakistan from easily crossing the border into Afghanistan.  A recent STRATFOR article highlights the difficulty that these factors create (Someone sent the the article, so I can't link - sorry):

Combat operations in the Afghan-Pakistani border area take on a regular cycle in accordance with the seasons. Winter arrives early in the extremely high altitudes of the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh. When the snows come, many of the high mountain passes become impassable, causing a noticeable decline in combat activity. With the spring thaw, heavy snow melt in the mountains results in flooding, mudslides and muddy or washed-out roads and paths, also limiting the level of combat.

So for there to be a pronounced uptick in violence in Afghanistan this winter, insurgents will have to overcome sizeable challenges.  The LA Times piece suggests that they might accomplish this through sheer willpower, borne from a desire to project influence during a period where convention dictates that their strength should be on the wane. However, a much more plausible and unpleasant explanation is that the Taliban have already gained a strong enough foothold in Afghanistan that they no longer depend as much on the lifelines w\ Pakistan to sustain their operations.  If this is the reality (there are signs that it might be) then a winter offensive becomes less an opportunity to keep the pressure on NATO-ISAF, and more a test to determine whether the insurgency has reached a point where it is self-sustaining.  If that's the case, we're in for a very long winter.

Update: Apparently Spencer Ackerman covered this subject in much more comprehensive fashion two months ago. Since he accounts for all the elements left out of the LA Times story, you have no reason to read my piece! 


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