No sign of spring offensive by Taliban, NATO says

KABUL Tue Apr 10, 2012 2:02pm IST

A U.S. soldier keeps watch as Taliban militants, part of a group of a hundred Afghan Talibans, hand over their weapons as they take part in the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Laghman province March 12, 2012. REUTERS/ Parwiz/Files

A U.S. soldier keeps watch as Taliban militants, part of a group of a hundred Afghan Talibans, hand over their weapons as they take part in the Afghan government's reconciliation and reintegration program in Laghman province March 12, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/ Parwiz/Files

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan insurgents have so far shown no sign of planning a repeat of last year's spring offensive against foreign and Afghan forces, preferring isolated attacks on small units and bases, a NATO spokesman said.

With the traditional summer fighting months only weeks away, German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson said available intelligence did not point to a unified Taliban assault.

"No announcement has been made by the insurgency, but we are looking at what they are doing at the moment. We are looking at this year with very open eyes," Jacobson told Reuters in an interview.

"They are focusing on attacks on individual posts, on small groups, outposts of soldiers. We haven't seen any cohesive action," he said late on Monday.

The Taliban last year launched "Operation Badr" - named after a famous seventh century victory by the Prophet Mohammed - vowing to target NATO military bases, convoys and Afghan government officials, as well as foreign companies.

They mounted high profile suicide attacks on heavily-guarded Afghan and foreign bases in the months after, culminating in a September attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul by militants who occupied a nearby building site.

Jacobson said the attacks of last year - which also included the assassination of the head of the Afghan government peace council in charge of reconciliation efforts - had failed to revitalise the insurgency.

But the Taliban may be emboldened with the planned post-summer withdrawal of 23,000 U.S. soldiers, and with 2012 being the final year of NATO's surge in troop numbers ahead of the pullout of most combat troops by end-2014.

A suicide bomber on Tuesday killed three police and six civilians in western Herat province, while the head of an eastern peace council was assassinated last week in another blow to efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

"We are waiting, how they are positioning themselves in their attempt to regain momentum. We are very optimistic that we will be, as last year, able to stop all the efforts that they are throwing against us," Jacobson said.

More than a decade after U.S.-backed forces toppled the Islamic militant government from power, the Taliban are still a potent threat, not only waging attacks in their southern strongholds but also in the once-peaceful centre of the country.

Western commanders have attributed smaller scale attacks to battlefield reverses for the insurgents, who they say now prefer to rely on surprise strikes and suicide attacks rather than confronting foreign troops directly.

NATO-led forces are beefing up Afghan security forces ahead of the 2014 withdrawal in hopes the fledgling military and police can beat back insurgent groups and help secure the nation as the Western presence winds down.

In a step toward complete transition to Afghan forces, Afghanistan and the United States reached a deal on Sunday to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul a veto over the operations despised by local people as a privacy intrusion.

Jacobson said Afghan special forces - though their numbers were still growing - were already capable of leading night raids while U.S. troops would have a support and advisory role.

He said their training should not be directly compared against Western mentors, who were taught roles beyond anti-insurgency operations.

"Afghan National Security Forces have to deal with the challenges that are waiting for them," Jacobson said. "They are not an army that has to be trained for endeavours outside Afghanistan's borders or overseas, or any role like that."

(Editing by Jack Kimball and Sanjeev Miglani)

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