Afghan Taliban announce start of ‘fighting season”

Operation Mansouri - named after the group's former leader, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2016 - will target foreign forces.

 An Afghan security official stands guard on a roadside after the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, April 28,  2017.  Ghulamullah Habibi / EPA
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KABUL // The Afghan Taliban launched their “spring offensive” on Friday, heralding fresh fighting in the drawn-out conflict as embattled security forces struggle to recover from a devastating attack on a military base one week ago.

Operation Mansouri — named after the group’s former leader, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2016 — will target foreign forces with “conventional attacks, guerrilla warfare, complex martyrdom attacks, insider attacks”, according to a statement from the insurgents. It went on, “The enemy will be targeted, harassed, killed or captured until they abandon their last posts.”

The annual spring offensive normally marks the start of the “fighting season”, though this winter the Taliban continued to battle government forces, most successfully in last week’s attack on the military base outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The massacre last Friday saw insurgents armed with guns and suicide bombs slaughter at least 135 young recruits, according to the official toll, though multiple sources have claimed it is much higher.

The assault is believed to be the deadliest by the Taliban on an Afghan military target since they were driven from power in 2001, and fuelled fears of insider attacks — when Afghan soldiers and police turn their guns on colleagues or on international troops.

The attackers carried valid passes to the base, security sources said, and were dressed in Afghan army uniforms. The defence minister and army chief have resigned, and at least 35 soldiers have been arrested over the incident.

Already beset by killings, desertions, and struggles over leadership and morale, Afghan forces have been straining to beat back insurgents since US-led Nato troops ended their combat mission in December 2014.

They faced soaring casualties in 2016, up by 35 per cent with 6,800 soldiers and police killed, according to a US watchdog.

With more than one third of Afghanistan outside of government control, civilians also continue to bear a heavy brunt. Thousands are killed and wounded each year with children paying an increasingly disproportionate price, according to UN figures.

Afghanistan’s interior ministry shrugged off the Taliban threats, saying the offensive was “not something new”.

“We will target, kill, defeat and suppress the Taliban ... all across the country,” acting ministry spokesman Najib Danish said.

The Taliban statement said they would focus on state-building and “establishing mechanisms for social justice and development” in the areas under their control.

Kabul-based analyst Ahmad Saeedi said the insurgents -- “emboldened” by government failures — would seek more territory this year instead of joining the political process.

“I believe this will be a difficult year for Afghan security forces, as they will be facing the resilient Taliban’s complex and sophisticated attacks countrywide,” he said.

The Taliban announcement comes days after Pentagon chief James Mattis was in Kabul

He also warned that 2017 would be “another tough year” for Afghan security forces, but would not be drawn on recent calls by Nato commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson for “a few thousand” more troops.

The US has around 8,400 troops in the country with about another 5,000 from Nato allies.

Earlier this month, the American military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on ISIL hideouts in eastern Afghanistan, killing nearly a hundred militants.

* Agence France-Presse