'Fighting Season' Underway For Taliban

Three high-profile attacks in Afghanistan last week, indicate the Taliban are not going to sit idly by as the U.S. military prepares to launch a new offensive. Militants have mounted a series of bold attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For the Taliban in Afghanistan, the fighting season has begun. Over the past week, militants have mounted a series of bold attacks on U.S. forces. The first came early last week when the Taliban targeted a military convoy traveling through Kabul, killing five Americans, including three officers. Then insurgents staged attacks on the two big coalition military bases, one in Bagram, the other in Kandahar. For more, we turn to NPR's Quil Lawrence, who's in Kabul.

Good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what is the government in Kabul making of the violence these past days?

LAWRENCE: Well, the attacks seem to be on American targets. The car bomb was quite devastating. The following day on the streets of Kabul, there were none of the normal traffic jams you see, so the population was definitely scared by this right in the center of the city.

I was at the scene shortly after the blast and got right up to the crater. You could see that these were armored SUVs that carry high ranking officers of the ISAF force, the NATO-led international force. And it came out soon after, that there were four officers in there - so maybe some of the highest ranking casualties in the entire war here.

I was on a military flight back from Bagram a day or two later, and I heard some soldiers wondering aloud whether this was a lucky hit or perhaps the Taliban somehow had the intelligence to target the officers in that convoy.

The attacks on Bagram and Kandahar, they didn't cause so many casualties, but it seemed to have been designed to send a message. Sort of a rallying cry for the Taliban's upcoming spring offensive. It was a sort of a kamikaze attack, small arms against the biggest bases in the country. But it shows that the Taliban can still recruit people for this sort of kamikaze raid.

MONTAGNE: And American troops have been pouring into Kandahar, which is supposed to be the next big step in clearing the Taliban out of the south, but that offensive appears to be either on hold or being transformed into something slightly different.

LAWRENCE: Right. We're hearing that from both the Afghan and U.S. military sources. The Kandahar offensive was supposed to be keeping up the momentum from the assault on Marja in February, and it now looks like they may have cleared Marja, but in this theory of clear, hold and build - the holding and building part is a lot harder if there isn't enough of an Afghan government presence to really hold the place.

Even a small place like Marja, they're having trouble building the civilian capacity there, and the Taliban seem to be slipping back in.

So now we're hearing from coalition spokesmen, not an offensive but a process that will be going on in Kandahar. And it may last well into the fall, waiting for the civilian side to be ready to fill whatever gap they're able to clear.

The trouble is that the Obama administration has a timetable where they're hoping to see really measurable success by the winter and then start to announce a drawdown of the troops that they've been surging into Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: And part of that strategy involves negotiations with the Taliban. I mean, the U.S. even agrees, along with the Afghan government, that some negotiations would have to take place. But is there any progress on that?

LAWRENCE: There've been denials from both the Taliban and the Afghan government that there were meetings taking place in the Maldives last week, but that country's president said he had been hosting some sort of dialogue. We're not sure how high up that went, but it may be a beginning.

At the same time, President Karzai has touted this upcoming peace jirga, an assembly to start a discussion. It's not clear who's coming to that and how long that will take. They say it's the beginning of a very long process. But we've just heard this morning that it's been delayed yet again - the third time it's been rescheduled. Now, it should start here in Kabul on the 2nd of June.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence speaking to us from Kabul.

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