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Spring fighting season is only just beginning, Gates says

By KEVIN BARON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 21, 2011

WASHINGTON — The annual resurgence of fighting in Afghanistan has begun, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, but is not expected to reach full strength for another month.

Still, some commanders report early signs that this spring’s Taliban renewal will be less vigorous than in years past.

“There has been some uptick in activity,” Gates said, “but we’re still kind of in the middle of the poppy harvest.”

Ground commanders in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces told Gates during a recent visit that the coming weeks were likely the most important of the entire war. The period is considered a test of the Obama administration’s surge of 30,000 additional U.S. forces who must hold and expand on territory taken from the Taliban in its heartland.

“They clearly intend to try and take that back,” Gates said. “If we can prevent them this year from retaking the areas that we have taken away from them, and we can continue to expand the security bubble, I think it’s possible that by the end of this year we will have turned a corner.”

The continuing poppy harvest means Afghan fighters are not expected in full force until at least mid-May, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright said.

“The character of the fighting right now is probably more along the lines of the individual spectacular attack, rather than groups of people,” Cartwright said. “We are trying to posture ourselves right now against the rat lines, as we would call them, supply routes that are coming up from the south and from the southeast.”

How well the fighting season goes will affect what numbers of U.S. troops are sent home in July, the White House-mandated deadline to start withdrawing forces, an aide to Cartwright said.

In northern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters are losing the ability to stage attacks because of constant pressure from U.S. and Afghan forces, said Army Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland, deputy commander of operations, in an earlier press conference on Thursday.

“We’re not seeing the flow of Taliban that I saw last spring,” he said. “Due to our operations, we actually saw 12 Taliban leaders leave [Regional Command]-North and go back to Pakistan, based on the pressure from [special operations forces] operations and conventional operations.”

“We haven’t taken a rest,” he added, “and I think it’s starting to show on the Taliban, in terms of them flowing back in here.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil