Afghan forces break from tradition and launch winter offensive
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan forces on Monday launched a winter military operation against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, abandoning a tradition of suspending fighting during the colder months of the year.
Operation Shafaq Two will be carried out in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, officials said.
“The aim is to continue eliminating the terrorists inside Afghanistan, targeting their supply routes, recruitment places and those areas where they gather and have hideouts,” said Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, deputy spokesman for the Defense Ministry.
Shafaq Two is a continuation of Operation Shafaq, which was launched in late March. It will last until next spring, when the traditional fighting season begins, Radmanish said. “Since Operation Shafaq was full of achievements throughout the summer and it defeated the Taliban’s offensives, it was decided to start the second phase of it for the winter.”
No other details about the forces engaged were immediately available.
Afghans forces were able this year to prevent the Taliban from occupying any major population centers, with the help of U.S. advisers and Special Forces. The provincial capitals of Helmand, Kunduz and Farah have been repeatedly threatened by the guerrillas.
Still, the Taliban reportedly control more territory now than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion removed them from power in 2001.
Some Afghan analysts believe the military needs the winter campaign to roll back those Taliban gains.
“The government has carried out hundreds of operations throughout the country over the past 14 years, but the situation is getting worse day by day,” said Malik Osman, a tribal leader in Achin district of eastern Nangahar province, where the Islamic State group forced thousands of residents from their homes this year.
The Taliban also operate in Nangarhar, which shares a mountainous border with Pakistan, and it is one of the 13 provinces where Afghan troops began Operation Shafaq Two on Monday.
Osman said he wasn’t hopeful about the military campaign in the remote mountainous districts. “I don’t think that the Afghan forces will be able to free Achin or Kot (district) fully from the Taliban or Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
The Defense Ministry said winter was an important time to cut off Taliban supply routes and destroy the group’s safe havens along the border.
But Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said that while many Taliban used to go to Pakistan over the winter in the past, now many tend to stay in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he said, Afghan forces in the coming months will be determined to reverse any recent progress made by the Taliban.
“I would say (Operation Shafaq Two) shows that we had a hard fighting season with Taliban gains and that Afghan government forces are trying to reverse that,” he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.