The Taliban announced on Thursday the start of their annual spring offensive, promising that the ongoing departure of international combat troops will not mean an end to the insurgency.
“If the invaders or their internal stooges believe that reducing the number of foreign forces will dampen our Jihadi fervor then they are sadly mistaken and should understand that due to our Islamic principles … it is obligatory upon every Muslim to expel them,” the Taliban said in a statement posted on their website.
The warmer spring and summer months have typically seen an uptick in fighting, but this year’s operations would come at an especially pivotal time in the 13-year-long insurgency.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force is actively withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as Afghan forces take responsibility for security across the country. Last summer marked the first year when Afghan forces were considered squarely in the lead.
The Taliban say their spring offensive will begin on Monday, which would put it in the middle of the ongoing Afghan presidential election.
Both Afghan and NATO officials dismissed the statement as empty threats.
“All have seen that the enemies have warned of disrupting the election, but they could do nothing and we had a successful election in the country,” Dawlat Waziri, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, told Stars and Stripes. “This is just a propaganda of the enemies.”
Despite threats and a campaign of violence across the country, the Taliban were unable to completely disrupt the first round of voting on April 5, in which as many as 7 million Afghans are estimated to have cast ballots. A runoff round between the top two presidential candidates is expected to occur in early June.
“This statement by the Taliban is simply a reiteration of previous years’ rhetoric and not reflective of the situation on the ground as it is today,” ISAF officials said in a statement provided to Stripes. “The [Afghan National Security Force] has earned the support of the Afghan people and the people have embraced them. The people have shown their rejection of the Taliban narrative by turning out in record numbers to vote in the elections.”
The name the Taliban chose for their spring operation this year, “Khaibar,” carries special significance for the insurgent group. Khaibar refers to a seventh-century battle in which Muslim armies expelled “enemies of Islam” from forts in which they had barricaded themselves in what is now Saudi Arabia.
“By taking this name as a good omen for the current year, we ask Allah ... to completely cleanse our country from the filth of the infidels and let their large bases be liberated, Allah willing,” the Taliban said in the statement.
The statement outlined the Taliban’s targets.
“Like previous years, the main target of the current year’s blessed Jihadi operation shall be the foreign invaders and their backers under various names like spies, military and civilian contractors and everyone working for them like translators, administrators and logistics personnel,” the statement said.
The group also declared open season on Afghan government, military, police and intelligence officials, including judges and prosecutors who have jailed insurgents.
The Taliban said their operations would be designed to inflict maximum loss on “the invaders” while sparing Afghan civilians, but the statement warned civilians to desist “from backing the foreign infidel invaders and to come out of the enemy ranks.”
In the weeks surrounding the election, the Taliban launched a series of spectacular attacks, many of which targeted foreign and Afghan civilians.
On election day itself, no high-profile attacks were carried out, but ISAF officials described the day as “one of the most violent,” as smaller attacks and fighting was widespread in more rural areas.
Afghan security officials said at the time that the election indicated their forces are up to the task of dealing with insurgent activity.
Ahmad Majidyar, a senior researcher with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he thinks the Taliban will likely focus on spectacular attacks aimed at undermining the Afghan government and proving the movement is still around, rather than trying to launch head-on combat operations against the still-formidable number of foreign and Afghan troops. But that won’t prevent an overall uptick in fighting.
“There will be significant rise in violence in coming months,” he said. “The end of poppy harvest usually coincides with the peak of Taliban attacks; seasonal fighters will join the Taliban ranks as religious seminaries in Pakistan go into a recess in summer; and most importantly, the Taliban suffered an image problem after failing to disrupt the elections, so it will redouble its efforts to undermine the upcoming second round.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.